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  • Of "Sound" and "Unsound" Body and MindReconfiguring the Heroic Portrait of Harriet Tubman
  • Janell Hobson (bio)

Harriet Tubman (ca. 1822–1913) is central to narratives of US progressive history and specifically black women's history. For this reason, she can easily be invoked in a historic acceptance speech by Viola Davis, who became the first black woman to win a Leading Actress Emmy in 2015 at a time when she had planned to produce and star in a Tubman biopic. Tubman has also inspired the establishment of a national park, as with the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument, and won the popular vote in a 2015 campaign to place a historic woman on the US currency. She is even contemporized for modern audiences, whether that involves denigrating her in a vulgar spoof called the Harriet Tubman Sex Tape, which briefly appeared on and then was subsequently removed from Russell Simmons's All-Def Digital YouTube channel due to its controversy, or celebrating her in a satirized Drunk History episode on Comedy Central, as portrayed by Octavia Spencer. She also appeared in the popular television series Underground, portrayed by Aisha Hinds, who delivered an unforgettable monologue in her iconic role. Functioning as perhaps the most iconic black woman in American culture, Tubman's image, words, and story continue to inspire and provoke.

Despite her hypervisibility as a historic icon, Tubman, who is renowned for her status as an Underground Railroad conductor, Civil War hero, and woman's suffragist, remains invisible as a person with a disability. That is, her disability as an identity marker is downplayed. I raise this issue for a few reasons. First, Harriet Tubman has been heralded as an extraordinary individual with incredible strength resulting in self-liberation and the liberation of approximately seventy slaves from the antebellum South on the Underground Railroad, and yet her "superwoman" abilities remain a mystery for many—mostly because these abilities remove her from the realm of the ordinary and the everyday. Second, this image of strong black womanhood clings to a woman who historically suffered from a disability [End Page 193] throughout her life, thus complicating the "strength" she embodied. Finally, Tubman was perceived as "illiterate," a woman who could not read nor write and therefore lacked the literary agency to make her own story legible in the annals of history. This last point shifts the critique of Tubman's disability from the physical to the cognitive, in which her ingenuity, navigational skills, and survival techniques are rendered mystically, even magically, as if they could not be based in intellectual genius.

Steeped in romanticism and mysticism—guided as she was by her "supernatural" visions in her journey along the Underground Railroad—Tubman also functions as more mythical than historical in the popular imaginary. She becomes what Vivian May describes as an "icon of strength," someone who "seems ahistorical, selfless, and without equal, not someone who worked within long-established networks of communication and resistance."1 Such a mythic lens further restricts and confines notions of heroism. Tubman's history is much like that of other legendary historical figures, who represent what Nell Painter calls "invented greats."2 Utilizing the example of Sojourner Truth (1797–1883), another black woman icon, Painter argues that such "invented greats" are "consumed as a signifier and beloved for what we need [them to be]."3

If greatness is based on what we need our icons to be, then perhaps it is time to redefine what it means to be "great." In other words, a non-ableist rendering of the "great woman" must reconstitute Tubman in a way that foregrounds what we might consider to be her "vulnerable strength" in the historical narrative. By complicating her strength through the lens of vulnerability, I in no way wish to diminish her abilities or to engender an ableist critique of the strength she embodied. Instead, I wish to call attention to the ways that we have discursively distinguished between weakness and strength, in which the superwoman is always capable, while her opposite—the disabled woman—is often assumed to be incapable.

This is a supposition that writer Carolyn Tyjewski challenges when reminding us that "if one looks...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1536-0334
Print ISSN
0160-9009
Pages
pp. 193-218
Launched on MUSE
2019-07-25
Open Access
No
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