Letters to Harriet: On John Tubman, Young Black Girls and the 2016 Presidential Elections

by Farah Tanis, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Black Women’s Blueprint. “The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witness ...


by Farah Tanis, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Black Women’s Blueprint.

“The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witness of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism…. Much that you have done would seem improbable to those who do not know you as I know you.” – Frederick Douglass, Letter to Harriet Tubman, 1869.

As Harriet Tubman’s image is being considered for placement on the twenty-dollar bill, and as the upcoming presidential election draws near, robust conversations have arisen around the redistribution of wealth, U.S. geographical borders and citizenship, education, reproductive justice and the war on women. As many wait with baited breath for the next move by 2016 presidential hopefuls, those of us in feminist and racial justice circles wonder whether issues or policies on gender violence, the persistent feminization of poverty, the growing Black female prison population and other intersectional women’s rights issues will be meaningfully debated. We wonder how related policy plans, proposals, and promises will affect the everyday lives of some of the individuals most impacted by these issues—Black girls and women living in neighborhoods ravaged by poverty, their bodily safety routinely threatened and weighed down by a culture of silence around both systemic violence and intra-community rape, domestic and dating violence, human trafficking and sexual abuse. In these under-recognized communities, many Black girls and adolescent women are in a constant state of witnessing intergenerational struggles of abuse. Too many have already internalized violence as normal, acceptable, and inevitable facets of their lives.

As these same girls attend public schools, reading outdated history books with few references to women of African, Indigenous, Latina or Asian descent, there is one woman whose story the educational system has deemed allowable to teach—Harriet Tubman. These girls, and all our children—whether they attend predominantly neglected Black neighborhood schools or by the luck of the draw, find themselves in better resourced educational spaces—are allowed to learn about the heroism of Harriet Tubman who got slaves to freedom. They are allowed to learn about the Underground Railroad.

There is no doubt that Harriet Tubman, our kin known as the “Black Moses”, was indeed a phenomenal woman and a force to be reckoned with. Depending on the source, this foremother made as many as nineteen missions to bring nearly 300 men, women, and children to freedom in the North and Canada with the help of safe houses on the Underground Railroad. Moreover, in the post-war era, Harriet Tubman also struggled for women’s suffrage.

Young Black girls learning of this herstory are certainly entitled to access this narrative as well as the positive imagery of Black womanhood Harriet Tubman offers. We have known for generations that Harriet Tubman was an escaped slave, an abolitionist and a veritable heroine. Yet, it is not until now that our vigorous documentation and research has uncovered another important and untold story about Harriet Tubman—that she was also a survivor of domestic violence.

Black Women, Domestic Violence and the Fallacy of Public and Private Domains

Harriet Tubman’s legacy of resistance did not begin and end in the so-called public sphere. Like many Black women and girls today threatened by loved ones in private spaces on a daily basis, Harriet Tubman’s fight was also quite literally on the home front. Her fight was in that place we call the private sphere, in her intimate partnership and relationship, in her married life with first husband John Tubman a free Black man, in 1844.

Accounts of Harriet Tubman’s story of survivorship give us a glimpse into the incidents we as activists, we as survivors and children of survivors recognize as intimate partner violence. In her 1995 Contemporary Black Biography, Mary Wainwright writes that “in 1849, John Tubman threatened to sell her [Harriet] “down the river” into the Deep South [into slavery], a possibility that had terrorized many of her dreams and waking thoughts”... and “Tubman left her husband in the middle of the night, afraid he would carry through his threat.” Such accounts trigger images of women with required safety plans. They conjure up images of girls hushed and frenzied and the packing of just the necessary items at the last critical moment. These accounts also conjure up images of our mothers fleeing on foot or by midnight cab to safe houses with only the clothes on their backs.

Domestic violence is commonly defined as a civil rights and human rights violation. It is defined as any act, attempt or threat of force by an intimate partner against another. The abuse can include physical, sexual, emotional, economic or psychological actions or threats or actions to control another’s safety, movement or freedom.

Public accounts by researchers and historians such as “marriage to a free man did not automatically bring Harriet freedom”, and “always in the background was the fear of being sold and sent to work on cotton plantations in the Deep South, regarded by the majority of slaves as a death sentence,” should give us pause. The bifurcation of women of color’s lives as public and private was and still is rarely ever the reality. As argued by anti-racist activist Kaitlyn Newman in 2015 “John Tubman’s threats rested on a rationale perpetuated by the racist nation-state of the day. That he was able to make such threats, the type and intensity of his abuse of Harriet, was mediated and based on the same type of violence—enslavement perpetuated at the same time, by the state”. The nature of Harriet Tubman’s abuse and her husband's threats were generated from the same rationale as chattel slavery, still legal in the nation-state at the time. His abuse was codified in law, not unlike the codification of negligence today that allows domestic violence to continue.

The belief that Black women's lives and bedrooms were ever isolated from the long reach of the state under slavery is false, and the silence that still prevails around all forms of violence against Black women today is extraordinarily egregious. Given a current social context where the public sphere consistently and violently encroaches on the Black private sphere—Black lives and Black homes, these violations of Black women and so called private struggles are also public and always inherently political. These violations have always caught the attention of the state, of neighbors and community, yet there continues to be a refusal to deal with intimate partner violence as important public matters to be accorded priority at the community level and in presidential and political debates on policy and solutions.

The Presidential Elections: The Private, Public and Political

Unless the millions of survivors of gender violence are prioritized in this upcoming presidential election and followed by meaningful policy change, they will continue to face the same daily threats to personal and economic security that Harriet Tubman did.

Just as accounts by domestic violence advocates tell us it takes on average seven times and on average seven attempts by a survivor longing for freedom, to finally, permanently take flight, Harriet Tubman after leaving her husband, John Tubman and getting to Pennsylvania went back for John Tubman, but found he had already taken another wife. Her return to him is a complicated phenomenon requiring a full understanding of the often life-or-death elements which motivate survivors to go back to the ones who harm them.

Harriet Tubman’s response to the discovery of John Tubman’s new wife is also instructive. What would it look like for survivors in our midst, rather than deliver themselves unto what might well be their deaths because of the scarcity of real options, to be able to finally say “…if he could do without me, I could without him"? This was the watershed moment that defined the work of Harriet Tubman. As divulged by historian Mintz and McNeil in Digital History, 2015, “it was then that Harriet determined to give her life to brave deeds,” …”and with her simple brave motto, "I can't die but once," she began the work which has made her Moses—the deliverer of her people.”

Each October, Domestic Violence Month, Black Women’s Blueprint chooses to amplify its celebration of this moment as illustrative of Harriet Tubman as a full and complex human being with a personal narrative inextricably linked to the broader, political narrative surrounding her life and the lives of women and girls throughout our communities. That personal narrative is also linked to the broader, political, and racial narratives surrounding Black men in our communities and how we single-handedly—and collectively—choose to respond when they commit violence against Black women and girls right in our homes.
We demand our presidential hopefuls consider these narratives and increase their focus on intersectional women’s rights concerns like poverty, the lack of access to affordable housing, immigration protections and more access for communities to resources to develop culturally-specific practices that equally center the most vulnerable. The idea that gendered and so-called private issues like domestic violence have virtually been left out of the debates right now, should also be part of the debate. To echo the words of Sevonna Brown, Human Rights Project Coordinator at Black Women’s Blueprint “candidates cannot keep pocketing and back-seating Black women’s realities!” and “…what costs might we face if we go into this next presidential elections phase ignoring or riding out the persistent historical amnesia about how Black women live and how we vote in this country?

By honoring and acknowledging all the facets of Harriet Tubman’s life, we honor and acknowledge all facets of our own and place them as central to contemporary political agendas. None of our stories should be forgotten or erased. We are “calling-in” community to delve further within our own individual and social experiences and discover what the historical and contemporary truths are about domestic violence in Black communities. Honor the past that is ever present. Honor what it takes for survivors to take flight to freedom and recall the journey by Harriet Tubman. When she crossed the border into the free state of Pennsylvania, it is documented that she looked at her hands attached to her Black body which had been brutalized by slavery and said “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”

Photo: iStockPhoto

Farah Tanis is Co-founder, Executive Director of Black Women’s Blueprint and launched and Chairs the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the U.S. ever to focus on Black women and their historical and contemporary experiences with sexual assault. She created the theatrical production Mother Tongue Monologues and founded the Museum of Women's Resistance (MoWRe), an international Site of Conscience since 2013. She is a 2012 U.S. Human Rights Institute Fellow and current member of the USHRN Task Force on the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. She recently became a Move to End Violence Cohort 3 Movement Maker

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