“Now look here. I done worked as hard as any man for twenty-four years. I made my way to freedom on my own, and now I intend to help my family. I’m not afraid of what I have to do, and I sure ain’t afraid just because I am a woman!”
Yes, shades of my ole buddy Sojourner Truth ripple though the words of my new hero, Harriet Tubman. Spoken with the verve of a true martyr for freedom, and a liberal dose of Sojourner spunk these words convinced her benefactors that her gender would not prevent her from completing the work that God had called her to do.
“Go down Moses, Way down in Egypt’s land. Tell old Pharaoh, Let my people go!
While not able or allowed to read the Bible, Harriet Tubman learned to sing the Negro spirituals as a small child living on a plantation in southern Maryland. She grew up with songs and stories that would propel her to embrace the work that she truly believed God was calling her to do and that earned her the fitting appellation, Moses of her people. Born the fifth of 9 children around 1825 to slave parents Harriet and Ben Ross, in her own words she recalled, “I grew up like a neglected weed—ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it.” Indeed, a Maryland law passed in 1712 guaranteed that any children born to enslaved women would be considered slaves or “chattel” of the master. Named Araminta or Minty at birth, she soon learned the twin maxims of slavery by harsh experience: (1) their labor was not their own, and (2) they could be sold off at any point to other plantations and separated from family. At age 5 or 6 she was sent to a neighbor to keep house and care for an infant. She was whipped often because there were specks of dust on a table, or she could not make the baby stop crying. For the rest of her life, her neck bore the scars of being whipped 5 times before breakfast when she was just a mere child. Her early years were a pattern of being sent away to neighbors and sent back to her mother severely debilitated, and undernourished only to be sent away again once she had been nursed back to health. In later years, she recalled an episode that provoked her to run away when she was only seven:
“My mistress got into a great quarrel with her husband; she had an awful temper, and she would scold and storm and call him all kind of names. Now you know, I never had anything good, no sweet, no sugar; and that sugar, right by me, did look so nice and my mistress’ back was turned to me while she was fighting with her husband, so I just put my fingers in the sugar bowl to take one lump and maybe she heard me for she turned and saw me. The next minute she had the rawhide down. I gave one jump out of the door.”
She ran and hid in a pigpen for 5 days and fought off the mother sow for the slop much of which consisted of the food she had prepared the day before. Eventually, the mama sow proved too much for her to fight, so to keep from starving, she went back and suffered a heavy beating. Next, she was hired out to a man who had her wade into waist deep water to recover muskrats from traps. She contracted measles and was sent home again. During this period she was described as sickly with hair that had never been combed and stood out like a bushel basket. Being a clever and resourceful child, she would put on all the clothes she could to protect herself from beatings, but she would wail as if the blows had full effect. Around age 12, she was deemed unfit for domestic work with the white mistresses and was sent to the fields where she began to hear stories of freedom. She liked feeling the wind on her face and seeing the sky while the slaves sang and shared tales of rebellion. They told stories that had filtered back to them of those brave ones, mostly men, who had escaped north to freedom. Minty grew strong from driving oxen, plowing, picking cotton, or hauling logs. While physically powerful, she was...