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On The Road To Harriet Tubman
She has become one of the most famous of all American women, but to the biographer she is a tantalizingly elusive quarry
June/July 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 3
Trying to write about Tubman, in the midst of all the complexities her life presents—especially to a scholar—I often felt my attempts to “capture” her were futile. And as she was one so well practiced in eluding captivity, I have found the struggle frustrating at times. To want to know your subject better than anyone else is a hubris biographers need to abandon; to try to cram every detail discovered into the text to somehow validate your authority also does a disservice. And so I wonder, how can I do justice to such a remarkable figure who has afforded me such a fulfilling biographical challenge. I believe all I can do is to try to tell Tubman’s life by imagining her as listener: knowing she would be raising an eyebrow here and there, and injecting humor, pathos, and double doses of humility. Indeed, she may have been a hero, but she was trying to teach us that we could all become heroes in our own lives. By using her as a sounding board, maybe I have crossed a line—which some of us do—of dialogue with our subjects. But these interior monologues can strike a chord when we stumble on our way—and lead us to a clearing along the tangled path.
Tubman was born into slavery and deprived of the basic human rights we now cherish as a nation. She stood up to the slave power, pushing the nation toward its awful reckoning with destiny. She wanted the Republic to live up to the ideals of liberty and justice for all. She encouraged followers: “If you are tired, keep going; if you are scared, keep going; if you are hungry, keep going; if you want to taste freedom, keep going.” Those dedicated to promoting her accomplishments know that whether working in the spotlight or scribbling by candlelight (as I was, finishing up in last year’s East Coast blackout), we must heed her example and “keep going.”