Our Kids Need to Know Harriet Tubman
February 28, 2018 § 2 Comments
Hands down, the most thought-provoking thing I read this month was an interview in the Pacific Standard with Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard-trained public defense lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a Southern non-profit dedicated to achieving racial and economic justice. In the interview, he discusses ways in which our country’s history—specifically that of African-Americans—lives on in our present, complicating our quest for racial justice. Of particular fascination to me was the distinction he draws between a legal or political win and what he terms a “narrative win.” The latter, he believes, holds the greatest power, the real key to comprehensive change. About slavery, for example, he explains:
I genuinely believe that, despite all of that victimization, the worst part of slavery was this narrative that we created about black people—this idea that black people aren’t fully human, that they are three-fifths human, that they are not capable, that they are not evolved. That ideology, which set up white supremacy in America, was the most poisonous and destructive consequence of two centuries of slavery. And I do believe that we never addressed it. I think the North won the Civil War, but the South won the narrative war. The racial-equality principle that is in our Constitution was never extended to formerly enslaved people, and that is why I say slavery didn’t end in 1865. It evolved.
We can outlaw slavery, Stevenson argues, or sentence lynchers, or desegregate schools, or pass the Voting Rights Act—but only when we begin talking honestly in our schools, homes, and communities about the complicated, nuanced history of growing up African-American at different times in our country, can we understand the tremendous rise in incarceration rates among black Americans, or the “menacing of communities of color and poor communities,” or the defense of Confederacy symbols. “We have to understand enslavement in a new way. I don’t think we’ve done a good job of educating people about what slavery did.” Not long after reading Stevenson’s piece, I came across an unsettling article in The Atlantic titled “What Kids are Really Learning About Slavery.” It cites a new study revealing how grossly misinformed American children are about the history of slavery in our country, largely due to uninformed, “sentimentalized,” or “sanitized” teaching—or even the absence of teaching on the subject all together.
Personalizing the history of enslaved people—for example, encouraging the reading of individual narratives—is an important first step, Stevenson argues, towards internalizing the truth about our country’s history, so that we can begin rewriting the present. As a child, I was fascinated by the life of escaped slave Harriet Tubman—specifically, by her involvement with the Underground Railroad. After all, what child isn’t intrigued by a so-called underground railroad that has neither anything to do with trains nor is actually underground? The Underground Railroad was, of course, a secret network of people, some black and some white, who were committed to providing safe harbor, often at great personal risk, to runaway slaves attempting to make their way on foot to freedom in the North. The struggle and heroism displayed on both sides—from the runaways to the helpers—is positively staggering. As such, it has always seemed to me a compelling but still hopeful lens through which to introduce young children to slavery.
I decided to dedicate this past month to sharing books with my kids about Harriet Tubman, especially given that—in part thanks to the media attention garnered last year by our own President’s exhibited ignorance about the American icon—a flurry of new children’s books on the subject have recently been published. (My son tried to convince me he already knew all about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad from Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales #5: The Underground Abductor, which admittedly is an awesome book, but I convinced him to humor me.)
If the best of American history is filled with people changing their destinies, turning misfortune into opportunity, and standing up to fight for themselves and, in turn, for those who cannot, then Harriet Tubman personifies the American Ideal. The two books I’ve chosen to discuss today could not be more different; but they work beautifully in tandem: the first bringing new texture to the most commonly known aspects of Tubman’s life, and the second expanding our awareness of her involvement and accomplishments beyond the Underground Railroad.
I am Harriet Tubman (Ages 6-10) is the fourteenth installment in Brad Meltzer and Christopher Eliopoulos’s hugely popular “Ordinary People Change the World” graphic biography series, many of which—as I discussed in the wake of the 2016 election—have become especially near and dear to my daughter’s heart. (When Emily’s school had Biography Day a few weeks ago, there was never any doubt she would go as Helen Keller—because I am Helen Keller.)
One of the biggest draws of this series for young children is its focus on the subject’s childhood. I am Harriet Tubman is no exception. Here, Meltzer and Eliopoulos do an especially adept job of presenting the inhumanity of slavery through the eyes of young Harriet. For children, slavery meant no birthday celebrations (in most cases, children had no idea when their birthdays were). Children had to wear “sacks.” They were forbidden by law to read and write. They were beaten if they didn’t do what their masters demanded. And their families could be split and sold off with no warning, which meant one day you or your loved one might be forced to leave, in many cases never to reunite with family again.
Even when describing horrific events, Harriet’s voice (through Meltzer) emerges emboldened, keeping the subject matter from becoming too overwhelming for her audience: “I know it’s scary. But by hearing my story, I hope you’ll find strength you never knew you had. That’s what happened when I was around seven years old.” At age seven, Harriet explains, in order to escape a beating, she hid in a pigpen for five days, “fighting the pigs for potato peelings.” When she eventually came out of hiding, near starvation, she was still beaten—and yet, the experience changed the way she (and those around her) saw herself: she was not afraid to protect herself. As years went on, she continued to endure abuse and injury at the hands of her owners. Still, each time she didn’t die, she drew faith that God was watching out for her. She began to allow herself to dream of freedom, of letting the North Star show her the way.
At 22 years of age, Harriet narrowly escaped to Philadelphia. Even more harrowing were her thirteen trips back to Maryland to escort 70 others, including strangers and family members, along the Underground Railroad to freedom. Both my children were riveted by these panels: Harriet disguising men as old ladies so they wouldn’t be recognized; hiding with runaways in hidden passages; wading through icy waters by dark; and creating diversions to get slave hunters off her back. “It’s sort of confusing,” my daughter pointed out, “but all the terrible work Harriet had to do when she was a slave, chopping wood and stuff, actually made her strong enough to get through the wilderness like that.” Indeed, the tables had been tuned, one of the many nuanced ironies of oppression.
At its conclusion, I am Harriet Tubman raises the idea that freedom alone is only part of the equation: it’s what we do with our freedom that determines our character. In the case of Harriet Tubman, she dedicated her new life to helping others, believing (her words) “the measure of success isn’t what you achieve for yourself, it’s what you do for others.”
In my life, I was told I couldn’t make my own choices.
Told I would never escape.
But I did.
I fought for my independence.
And once I had breathed the air of freedom,
I knew I needed to help others breathe it too.
For more about what the adult Tubman achieved on behalf of others, we turn to our second book. If I am Harriet Tubman begins with its subject as a child, this second tribute to the American icon begins at the end of her life. The lyrical and intimate Before She Was Harriet (Ages 7-12), written by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated by her husband, James E. Ransome, actually begins with Harriet’s wrinkles: “Here she sits/ an old woman/ tired and worn/ her legs stiff/ her back achy.”
The title a nod to her birth under a different name, Before She Was Harriet takes readers on a poetic journey backwards through Tubman’s life, from an old woman to the young slave who learned to read by starlight. Each turn of the page peels back another layer, revealing the incredible breath of roles she played in her life, well beyond that of “Moses,” the Underground Railroad conductor for which she is most well known.
For example, before she “was an old woman,” Harriet was a “loud and angry” suffragist, fighting on behalf of women’s rights:
a voice for women
who had none
in voting booths
before her voice became
soft and raspy
it was loud
rising above injustice
Before she was a suffragist, she was an abolitionist, serving in the Civil War by ferrying hundreds of slaves to freedom: General Tubman/ rising out of the fog/ armed with courage/ strong in the face of rebels/ and planters and overseers/ as they watched/ fields burn. Before she was General Tubman, she was a Union Spy, carrying secrets/ across battlefields/ to soldiers/ fighting in the Civil War/ for President Lincoln/ to end slavery.
As the pages continue, they reveal a younger and younger Tubman. Only great restraint on my part is holding me back from citing each one of the evocative, economical poems which deliver these momentous roles and deeds to us. And yet, even as Harriet Tubman emerges a fiery feminist, a fierce warrior, and (let’s be honest) a total Bad Ass, the soft watercolor illustrations allude all the time to her grace, her humility, and her quiet stoicism. She looks, well, human. She looks relatable.
At the end of his interview about the state of race in our country, Stevenson is asked whether he feels hopeful going forward, particularly for the youngest generations. His response gives me chills:
I don’t think we’re allowed, frankly, to get hopeless and beat down, and I think that’s the upside to understanding this history. The more we understand the depth of that suffering, the more we understand the power of people to cope and overcome and survive—because my grandmother was the daughter of people who were enslaved, and her father was in her ear every day of her life talking about slavery, and she was in my ear, I feel the force of their strength. I really do.
Harriet Tubman underscores this power. The power to stand up, to push back, and to fight. The even greater power to help others do the same. These two pictorial accounts of Harriet, of “Moses,” are just a few of the many illuminating narratives children’s literature gives us to help bring our children into the larger narrative of race, racial history, and the move toward racial justice in our country.
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Books published by Dial Books for Young Readers and Holiday House respectively. Review copy provided by Dial. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!