May 20, 2016

Tales from the Completist: "Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom" (2004), by Catherine Clinton

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, I find myself sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, by Catherine Clinton

Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (2004)
By Catherine Clinton
Little, Brown and Company / Time Warner

(UPDATE: Since writing this review, I've learned that US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew specifically mentioned this book as one of the big reasons his department chose Tubman for the new face of the twenty-dollar bill, high praise indeed for this decade-plus-old volume.)

Like many Americans, when it was announced this year that Harriet Tubman would be the new face of the twenty-dollar bill, I realized with a bit of shame that I didn't actually know anything about Harriet Tubman, minus the half a day in fourth grade when we learned in public school that she had had something to do with the Civil War; and so to rectify this fact before the release of the new currency, I recently picked up Catherine Clinton's 2004 biography of Tubman (amazingly, one of the only Tubman bios expressly for grown-ups ever written in the entirety of history), where I learned that Harriet Tubman was actually a badass who more than earned her right to be on the twenty-dollar bill, especially poignant because she so thoroughly embodies the stubborn, resilient, libertarian mythos of America that Americans so enjoy projecting onto ourselves.

Born a slave in the deep South in the 1820s, Tubman essentially ran away to freedom in her twenties, but this wasn't enough for her; she eventually became one of the only black women ever involved with the famed "Underground Railroad" of the pre-Civil War era, a guerrilla fighter who made rescue missions back into the South at least once a year all the way until the Emancipation Proclamation, doing such smart things as scheduling her raids in the middle of the winter so that as few of the fat, lazy racists down there would want to bother chasing her, and starting fugitive slave flights on Saturday nights, since at the time it was a law that slaves got Sundays off to go to church, which meant that masters would not realize the slaves were missing until Monday morning, and so were not able to get a notice in the local paper about it until Tuesday morning, long after Tubman and her party were gone. This made her singlehandedly responsible for rescuing literally hundreds of former slaves in the years before the Civil War; then when the war actually happened, she became a secret freaking agent for the Union army, using her skills in stealth and intel gathering to give detailed reports to generals about the size and location of Confederate troops they were about to launch attacks on, turning all the battles she was a part of into routs which Union forces overwhelming won with almost no casualties at all. And all of this, mind you, happened before Tubman had even turned forty; then she managed to live for another half-century after all this, becoming the revered civil-rights leader and national hero that she deserved to be honored as.

Make no mistake, Tubman suffered the kinds of Reconstruction-era indignities that all black people did in the years after the war, including it taking literally decades to get the proper compensation from the US government for her wartime activities that she had earned (and had deferred at the time so that the army could buy more supplies and medicine); and her life was not without its own controversies either, including a mysterious young woman in her life who may or may not have been an illegitimate daughter sired from a white father, her public snubbing of Abraham Lincoln during the war for being "soft on abolition," as well as Tubman's full public embrace of avowed terrorist John Brown, to the extent of Brown eventually referring to her as "General Tubman" in his talks about his coming war against the US government. But all that said, it's hard to imagine a more apt person to be brought to the forefront of the US consciousness right now in this newest low point of race relations, a woman who is well worth taking the time to know and understand. This bio is a great place to start, and it comes recommended to those like me who barely know anything about who Tubman was or why you're going to be seeing a lot more of her starting next year.

Read even more about Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, May 20, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |