The Radical Faith of Harriet Tubman

Casey Cep:

“Combee” is one of two notable books out this year to wrestle with less familiar aspects of Tubman’s legacy. The other is “Night Flyer: Harriet Tubman and the Faith Dreams of a Free People” (Penguin Press), by Tiya Miles. Fields-Black conveys, in elaborate detail, what America’s Moses did to help abolish slavery; Miles addresses the far more elusive question of why she did it.

Neither “Combee” nor “Night Flyer” is a cradle-to-grave biography, though both Fields-Black and Miles are drawn to the cradle that Tubman’s father made for her, from the trunk of a sweet-gum tree. Born Araminta Ross, to Harriet Green and Benjamin Ross, around 1822, Tubman was first known as Minty. There were tender moments—she recalled being rocked in that hand-carved cradle—but her early years in Tidewater Maryland were filled mostly with physical torture and emotional terror.

Tubman was the fifth of nine children. Three of her sisters were sold and sent to the Deep South. Her parents were owned by two different families who separated them not long after her birth. While still a young girl, Tubman was taken away from her mother and forced to work as a maid, a nanny, a trapper, and a field hand. She was whipped constantly and regularly deprived of food and clothing. Short and frail, she was often debilitated by beatings and was once struck so hard with a two-pound iron weight that she suffered seizures for the rest of her life. What was never beaten out of her was an innate sense of liberty—the knowledge, self-evident to her, that God intended for her to be liberated from bondage, spiritually as well as literally. “God set the North Star in the heavens,” she said later. “He gave me the strength in my limbs; He meant I should be free.”

Tubman’s concept of freedom was not only hoped for, like faith; it was something she observed in the world around her. Like Frederick Douglass, born just a few towns away, Tubman saw the reality of liberation early, interacting with formerly enslaved people who had worked to buy their freedom or been manumitted by their owners. In Tubman’s lifetime, the Black population in Maryland was almost evenly divided between enslaved and free; the year before the Civil War started, the state had more free Black people than any other in the country. She married one of those free men, John Tubman, and after taking his name she took her mother’s, too.