in 1987, then president ronald reagan wrote the first public proclamation declaring:
women’s history month as a time for us to recognize and salute women’s contributions to the american family and to society.
i was 16 years old at the time and mr. reagan’s declaration came nearly a year after 14 states had named march women’s history month.
if my family had waited on america to decide women had in fact contributed to the making of this country, i believe i would have grown up questioning my worth and ability to make a difference in this world. as it turns out, they did not.
when i was a 7-year-old second grader, my uncles, brother, and i were sat down in front of our family’s zenith television to watch “a woman called moses” staring cecily tyson.
my mother thought it was important for me to see cecily tyson portray the legendary hero, harriet tubman. she believed then that it was important for me to see images of myself affirmed in the movies i watched, the books i read, and the toys i played with.
my mother was especially committed to making sure that i was surrounded and knew of by women she admired. my mother taught me much more than school, about my heritage as a descendant of enslaved laborers. she schooled me on my place in this world as a woman and as a future leader in my community.
she did this primarily through the model she set. and she emphasized these lessons through the stories she had me listen to from elder family members. the books she brought home for us to read. and the limited television, she allowed me to watch.
my mother’s rule was if who i was as a girl or as a black person wasn’t affirmed in the media i consumed, it was not permitted in our house. period.
so being allowed to watch cecily tyson play harriet tubman on television was a real treat. especially since it also allowed me to stay up an hour past my bedtime.
harriet tubman taught me superheroes are real
cecily tyson showed me that harriet tubman was flawed and wounded. and although the portrait i saw of this mythical woman on television was wholly human, i could not help but to believe that harriet tubman was in fact a superhero, complete with superpowers.
i loved comic books, and superheroes as a kid (and as an adult). i especially loved wonder woman. my uncles even nicknamed me wander woman.
i would spin and pretend that i could force the truth from grown ups with my lasso of truth. but as much as i was enamored with lynda carter as wonder woman, i was transfixed by the image of cecily tyson as harriet tubman.
harriet tubman for me was much more of a superhero than wonder woman.
i knew that wonder woman wasn’t real. i knew that she was just made up fiction. i would pretend but i understood that airplanes weren’t invisible and as much as i wanted it to be so, there was no such thing as a lasso of truth.
but harriet tubman…
she had actually walked this earth. she was a person who had lived and breathed and even ate things like collard greens, just like me.
legends told me that she worked with the strength of two grown men. and i watched cecily tyson be beaten and maimed and left for dead, just as the books say they did to harriet.
i stood in our living room amazed that a woman could be beaten, and disabled but stand firm in her conviction to be more than her condition. to be larger than the life she’d been given.
i knew that women could be strong. i’d seen my grandmother and aunts work just as hard as my grandfather and uncles. but i’d never known anyone who was able to walk 90 miles.
harriet tubman walked 90 miles through hostile territory to free herself. she walked 90 miles while men with guns, and dogs chased her. she walked, trusting strangers to hide her, and to keep her fed and safe. and when she was finally living in the land of freedom, she did not rest. she plotted and planned so that she could return and free her family.
she plotted and planned so that she could return and free her family.
and if the only things harriet tubman had ever done was walk to freedom and then later return to rescue her family members, she would have earned her place in history as a woman of courage. but those tasks were only the beginning of her career as a liberator. it was only the first step in her earning her place as one of the greatest americans to ever live.
you see after walking 90 miles to earn her own freedom, and then successfully returning to free her family, harriet tubman returned again and again to free others. she is also credited with supporting newly freed americans with starting their own businesses in the north. during the civil war, harriet tumban worked during as a union nurse, and then as a scout, and later as a spy. she was also instrumental in helping lead an armed raid through the south which resulted in the freeing of 700 enslaved laborers.
it is for these things that to me she is a superhero complete with superpowers. consider this quote:
i freed a thousand slaves; i could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.
this is not an exaggeration. if anything it may well be an underestimation of how many enslaved laborers owed their freedom to harriet tubman.
in her book harriet tubman: the road to freedom, one the best biographies ever written about harriet tubman, catherine clinton writes
the year 1849 became a turning point. to best fulfill her destiny, tubman realized, she must actively seek a role in God’s plan, rather than letting others dictate her path. for araminta, this was an important step forward, a significant leap of faith, especially faith in herself.
harriet tubman was fierce. she was committed. she did not allow self-doubt to dictate her steps.
she decided that 20+ years as a slave was long enough. and even though she did not know what kind of life existed beyond slavery’s walls, she knew that she had to be free. she knew that freedom was in fact her birthright.
she knew that getting free meant leaving the people she loved behind. but she had “reasoned this out in my mind, there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.”
i was fascinated at 7 years old by the idea that someone could be so compassionately committed to a dream that they’s be willing to leave everything they knew and everyone they loved behind in order to achieve it.
the thought of having a dream that big gave me anxiety at 7 years old. hell, at 46 i can’t fathom moving more than 10 miles from my family. so the idea of leaving them to pursue freedom on my own turns…frankly scares me shitless.
i imagine that harriet tubman was also scared. i imagined that she also wanted a different answer. i imagine that she didn’t want to leave her family behind. but if she hadn’t…if she hadn’t pushed past her fear and do it anyway…where would her family have been.
what would have become of her parents?
what would have become of her brothers?
if harriet tubman had not made the life threatening choice to walk to freedom, who would have?
every great dream begins with a dreamer
in 2012, i started walking seriously for my health. primarily my mental health. just recently, i told a roomful of people that my motivation for walking wasn’t so that i could lose weight. my motivation for walking was so that i wouldn’t lose my mind.
it’s a cute soundbite. but it’s also the truth. i have a lot of responsibilities. and with a lot of responsibilities comes a lot of stress. at the time i was juggling my responsibilities pretty ok (i mean my kid was eating well, and the dog wasn’t tearing up the couch) but i was not managing my stress.
i started walking after i asked myself, “if harriet tubman could walk 90 miles to gain her freedom, return to the land of her captivity 19 times to free 300 hundred more…why can’t i walk 30 minutes a day to improve my health and well-being?”
when i didn’t have a snappy comeback…i knew it was time for me to set aside my worries and walk it out.
the more i walked, interestingly enough, the more i relaxed. the more i relaxed, the more i found myself dreaming. and the more i dreamed the bigger my dreams got.
i’m no longer afraid that my dreams are bigger than my capacity for seeing them through. i’m no longer afraid because i rely on the legacy of titans like harriet tubman to show me the way.
when i get too inside my head about a thought or idea, i ask myself, “what would harriet do?” the answer i usually come up with is ‘pray and trust God.
this month, i am using m voice – fearfree living – to focus on women who have contributed to our country in profound ways. i do this because i believe that knowing the contributions of women in american history is important. i do this because
it forces you off your pity pot.
you think you have problems…you think you have too many mouths to feed…you think you have too many responsibilities to handle…then you read about how harriet tubman went back to bring her husband to free territory and not only did he not leave to head north with her, he was already shacking up with another woman!
you get mad when someone forgets to put the toilet seat down! imagine how she felt when she’d risked life and limb so they could be together only to have him say to her, ‘stay here with me or i’m going to marry another woman?’
i highly recommend clinton’s book it takes the marvels of her life and makes you feel like perhaps you really can live the dream you’ve been dreaming. but for now here’s one more spoiler…
in the end she remarried (a younger man) outlived him and was buried an american hero.
live fearfree. be harriet.