I first learned about Harriet Tubman as a second grade student in Ms. Connolly’s class at Brookline’s Pierce School.
I still remember the chorus from the song about the diminutive, dark-skinned woman people called “Moses”:
Follow the drinking gourd
Follow the drinking gourd
For the old man is a waiting to a carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd
I remember being surprised when I learned later that the number of slaves she rescued from the South and brought to freedom in the North and Canada was estimated at 300. Somehow I had assumed she would have saved thousands of people.
My surprise revealed my ignorance.
Each journey Tubman took demonstrated her legendary courage. Her ability to enlist the trust of local black people and white sympathizers, then to usher her family members and others to safety illustrated the skill, tenacity and fearlessness that have earned her deserved iconic status.
While there have been a spate of young adult books and even films about Tubman, until recently there had not been a serious biography of her in decades.
An Ivy-educated historian, Clinton has written an admiring work about Tubman that begins with her birth into slavery in Maryland’s Eastern seaboard, describes her decision to seek her own freedom, and then to return over and over again to rescue others who were in the same enslaved she had been previously.
Clinton also uses Tubman’s life and actions as a vehicle to discuss the history of slavery in the United States and Canada. While Canada has gained acclaim as being a safe haven for former slaves who had escaped through the Underground Railroad, Clinton points out that it was not always so in the country.
She also writes extensively about local and federal fugitive slave laws that give a deeper understanding of the country’s tortured journey toward the abolition of what then-presidential candidate Barack Obama memorably called America’s “original sin” as well as of the extraordinary risks Tubman took in the service of her people.
They were remarkable indeed.
Clinton writes about Tubman’s profound religious faith and nearly incomprehensible physical stamina, strength and toughness-she once knocked out infected teeth with a pistol she carried-that invariably saw her and the party she was protecting through to safety.
Tubman is not only a saintly figure in the book, though.
Clinton describes the pain she undoubtedly experienced at her returning to save her first husband John, only to discover that he had taken another wife and would not consent to see her. She also writes about Tubman’s controversial abduction of a young girl who may have been a daughter, niece or non-family member.
Tubman’s unwavering support of violent abolitionist John Brown and her service as a spy in the Union Army were pieces of information for me, as was her staunch support of women’s rights. When asked whether she thought women should have the right to vote, she replied, in essence, “I suffered enough to deserve it.”
Tubman eventually found happiness with Nelson, her second husband with whom she spent close to two decades of contented union.
Although she struggled with finances throughout her life, she continued unceasingly to try to help people less fortunate than her.
The book’s epilogue has an interesting discussion of Tubman’s legacy and how it has been contested and amplified throughout the years.
Clinton has a few writing tics that get in the way of the reader’s absorbing what she has to say-she has a tendency to string together as many as half a dozen consecutive questions, for example-and the book breaks little new ground in its interpretation of nineteenth century American history.
But it does give a clear, accessible and thoughtful account of one of America’s great figures. I hope you consider giving some time to this biography of the woman called “Moses.”