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 trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven. ~Harriet Tubman
She stood at just five feet, two inches tall.
She couldn’t read. She couldn’t write.
She suffered from narcolepsy and visions and life-long headaches because when she was 13 years old a man threw a weight at her head.
And she was a slave.
There are so many reasons she shouldn’t have been able to be who she was.
But all of those reasons made her into the heroic woman we know her to have been.
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in 1820.
By the time she was five years old, she was “loaned out” to other households for chores and odd jobs – preparing for a life of hard work and strife and tragedy and heartache. At five years old, she would have just graduated from needing a nap (if she was ever allowed to take one, that is); she would have had tiny clothes, and tiny five-year-old’s hands, and a child’s eyes that sparkle when they see a butterfly.
She would have learned, I’m sure, that being a female slave meant you were the least powerful human at the time.
But she learned other lessons about power, too. Her own mother (whose name was also Harriet) was a courageous woman who was willing to exact every last drop of power that she had when it mattered.
Harriet saw her use that power, firsthand.
As the story goes, one night, men were sent to take Harriet’s brother to a different property.
“You may get this boy,” her mother shouted from inside the door, “But whichever of you comes through that door first will have a split skull for it.”
The men … left.
I don’t know, but perhaps that was the moment when Harriet recognized: even the powerless have great power. If they’re willing to take the risk to exercise it.
And perhaps that’s where she found the courage to, at thirteen-years old, throw herself between a slave and an angry overseer; the weight the overseer had thrown at that slave hit Harriet in the head and nearly killed her.
And perhaps that’s where she found the courage to escape (and fail) and escape again – to find her way to Philadelphia and freedom.
And perhaps that’s where she found the courage to return after her escape to free her mother and others that had been left behind.
That’s how you’ve probably heard about Harriet, right? The stories about her work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, traveling with her charges by night through swamps and woods to avoid detection, are awe-inspiring. She made over ten trips back over the Mason-Dixon line to help people escape; she used to say that she never derailed a train, and never lost a passenger.
She personally led dozens – some say hundreds – of slaves to freedom, first over the Mason-Dixon line, and then further into Canada.
Those are amazing tales of heroism and courage, made more fantastic by the fact she was a woman.
But this woman – who was once a pre-school aged house slave who lived off of table scraps and was returned to her plantation because she had eaten a sugar cube – did much more than run routes on the Underground Railroad.
When the Civil War began, she took her work above ground and enlisted as a “contraband” nurse – a nurse that would tend to the often sick and dying slaves that were left behind.
She became a Union spy, and a scout – and she led Union troops on raids. In fact, in July 1863, the Boston newspaper The Commonwealth wrote a whole column describing Tubman’s “campaign on the Combahee River,” a campaign that she conceived, developed – and implemented. (The Commonwealth clearly saw her as a curiosity. In describing the victory speech she gave after the raid it said: For sound sense and real native eloquence, her address would do honor to any man, and it created a great sensation… ).
After the war she organized “Freemen’s Fairs” to benefit former slaves and took in what she called the “odds and ends” of society – even as she personally struggled to make ends meet and bartered crops, burned fencing to heat her home, and took on as many borders as she and her family could.
It goes on – later in life she became an outspoken supporter of women’s suffrage alongside Susan B. Anthony, and purchased the property next to her own to begin a home for the aged and indigent.
She did not stop trying to improve peoples’ lives until her own life ended at 93.
How could this woman – slight in stature, illiterate, often penniless – lacking in every kind of power we are taught to believe we need to make a difference – make such a profound impact?
To be honest, it seems that she just went about doing what she saw that needed to be done, no matter who or what was in her way.
That, friend, appears to be her secret sauce.
It’s easy to dismiss yourself – to excuse yourself from action by saying you don’t matter. It’s easy to say that whatever your hands can do just … isn’t enough – that you don’t have the power, or the money, or the education, or the experience.
So why bother.
Well, I’m here to quiet that voice in your head.
If you have the will, you will find a way.
When the obstacles seem insurmountable and you’re exhausted and overwhelmed…
When you feel insignificant, and unimportant, and like you can’t make a difference – because you’re just one person, after all…
Try to remind yourself. You’re one person. You’re one person who has more education, more experience, more resources, more … power – than someone who inspired an entire nation.
One person – you – can make one hell of a difference.
And when you have so many others of us beside you?
Well, then, friend.
We can change history.
Let’s get to work.
Tuesday: Harriet Deserves to be the Face of the $20 Bill
You’ve almost certainly heard that Trump has delayed the redesigned $20 bill that would feature Harriet Tubman (see amazingness above) rather than the bust of Andrew Jackson (slaveholder POTUS best known for the Trail of Tears).
But there’s a bill that can push the Trump administration forward. It’s called the Harriet Tubman Tribute Act – and (brace yourself) it’s got BIPARTISAN SUPPORT!!!
That’s like the chupacabra of legislation, folks, so let’s get on this thing!
In the House, go to https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/1083/cosponsors to see if your member is a co-sponsor. If not, let’s pressure them to be on the right side of this. My God – if a Republican can back this thing there is literally NO excuse.
In the Senate, go to https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/872/cosponsors.
Then call your Senators and Congress(wo)men and let them know that you expect this American icon to have her place in history.
Wednesday: It’s Juneteenth!
This Wednesday is Juneteenth – a celebration of the emancipation of the people that our forefathers enslaved.
In 2018, the Senate (yes! that’s not a typo!) agreed to a resolution naming June 19th as Juneteenth Independence Day. The House, however, has not done the same.
Let’s call on our Congresspeople to change that – to agree to the same resolution.
Script: Hi, my name is ___ and I’m a constituent at ___. I’m calling because in 2018 the Senate passed a resolution recognizing June 19th as Juneteenth – a day to celebrate emancipation. I want to encourage the Congress(wo)man to support a resolution doing the same.
Thursday/Friday: Week Three of Jen’s Voting Rights Project!
For the past two weeks we’ve been taking part in the Americans With Conscience Checklist’s special project to support voting protections. This is the final week!
And start checking off the super-simple actions that empower voters/voting and protect our democratic process! When you complete the actions, please mark them off as completed – help Jen and her team reach their 2k action goal!