by Yvette Carnell
Before Malcolm X gave us the ballot or the bullet, one of America’s most heralded liberators-Harriet Tubman distinguished liberty from freedom based on a strict definition of what she was entitled to as a human being. Patrick Henry wasn’t the only American to cry “Give me liberty or give me death,” since Tubman and the slaves who traveled her railroad wailed it as a battle cry, and infused it with more urgent and life altering meaning than Henry could muster.
From the books Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero and Harriet Tubman Who Led Slaves to Freedom we begin to understand the liberating values which propelled Tubman to risk her life for slaves.
On the choice between freedom and servitude:
“There’s two things I’ve got a right to, and these are death or liberty. One or the other I mean to have. No one shall take me back alive. I shall fight for my liberty, and when the time has come for me to go, the Lord will let them kill me.”
On the realization of freedom:
“When I found I had crossed that line, 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 as if I was in Heaven.”
On the danger of the Confederacy to Negro freedom, Tubman’s observations were particularly prescient:
They may send the flower of their young men down South, to die of the fever in the summer and the ague in the winter. They may send them one year, two years, three years, till they tire of sending or till they use up the young men. All of no use. God is ahead of Mr. Lincoln. God won’t let Mr. Lincoln beat the South till he does the right thing. Mr. Lincoln, he is a great man, and I’m a poor Negro; but this Negro can tell Mr. Lincoln how to save the money and the young men. He can do it by setting the Negroes free. Suppose there was an awfully big snake down there on the floor. He bites you. You send for the doctor to cut the bite; but the snake, he rolls up there, and while the doctor is doing it, he bites you again. The doctor cuts that bite, but while he’s doing it the snake springs up and bites you again, and so he keeps doing till you kill him. That’s what Mr. Lincoln ought to know.”
And on what happens after freedom, Tubman denounced the colonization movement, saying that the white people got the n*ggers to do their drudgery, and now want to “root e’em out and send them to Africa”, “But,” she said, “they can’t do it, we’re rooted here, and they can’t pull us up.”
Thank you Harriet Tubman, for everything. We live in your gratitude.