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Harriet Tubman: Our Northern Star

Harriet Tubman: Our Northern Star

By N. F. |

“Aye lemme hold a Tubman!”—That might be a common future phrase. 103 years after her death, Harriet Tubman will be placed on the $20 bill. Would she be proud? That’s not for us to decipher, but one thing for sure is African-Americans were quick to create the Harriet Tubman meme. Just as a peacock flashes its feathers, we invent memes to showcase our pride.

The Harriet Tubman Meme

Often we do not hear women’s voices in American history. Seldom do we hear black female voices. Rarely are we exposed to dark skinned women’s tales. Now is the time to revisit the past and now is the time to pay homage to a great American hero. When I was becoming reacquainted with Tubman’s courageous biography, Oprah Winfrey immediately sprang to my mind. Similar to Tubman, Winfrey originates from the South and was born in poverty. Oprah has created a career out of being self-made, while Tubman’s legacy illustrates her ability to become self-emancipated—and hence self-made—by escaping slavery.

Harriet Tubman’s statue, “Swing Low: Harriet Tubman Memorial,” is “located  at the intersection of Frederick Douglass Boulevard, St. Nicholas Avenue and 122nd Street, a formerly barren traffic triangle”(Williams). If the placement was intentional, the person responsible for setting the location of the memorial must be one clever historian because the “traffic triangle” could be said to represent the capitalist “traffic” in slaves. The Atlantic slave trade involved the triangulation of Europe, West Africa, and the Americas.

Tubman’s army-green statue resembles a soldier who is heading off to fight a battle. Her messenger bag is key to her survival, so she clutches it tightly, just as a soldier would clutch her weapon. Eyes set on the path in front of her, this woman will not be stopped. Tubman is headed to her destination with determination set on her face. The direction of the statue received public backlash at first because Tubman’s statue is facing south. Naysayers believed that the direction of Tubman’s contradicted everything Tubman was trying to escape from.  Alison Saar, who is the sculptor of the Swing Low: Harriet Tubman Memorial statue defended the placement saying, “She’s best known for her sojourns north, but what is most impressive to me are her trips south, where she risked her own freedom” to rescue slaves on the Underground Railroad and guide them to the North (Williams).

Across the street from the Tubman Memorial, I saw the street sign for “Frederick Douglass Boulevard.” However, since there was no statue of Douglass nearby, there should have been a street or boulevard named in her honor. Douglass and Tubman were abolitionists who enacted different paths to end slavery. Douglass was heavily involved in the political scene, delivering speeches at anti-slavery conventions. He had some unfavorable opinions about the Underground Railroad, writing “I have never approved of the very public manner in which some of our western friends have conducted what they call the underground railroad. I … can see very little good resulting from such a course…. I see and feel assured that those open declarations are a positive evil to the slaves remaining who are seeking to escape. They stimulate him [the master] to greater watchfulness, and enhance his power to capture his slave” (60). Meanwhile, Tubman was helping hundreds escape from slavery. Now, who is the one who will be featured on the $20 bill? Exactly.*

Araminta “Harriet” was born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland.  Her exact date of birth is unknown but estimated to be around 1820-1825 (Biography Editors). Her parents were Ben Ross and Harriet Green. Araminta had eight siblings and informally changed her name to “Harriet” when she married her husband, John Tubman, a free black man. As expected, physical abuse was a common occurrence in Tubman’s life. Sadly, Harriet was separated from three of her sisters as they were sold to faraway plantations. In 1849, she resourcefully used the death of her owner as a venue to freedom. She and her two brothers fled to Maryland. Unfortunately, Tubman’s brothers had a change of heart and went back to their plantations. Tubman continued the journey alone, escaping to Pennsylvania using the Underground Railroad, “an elaborate secret network of safe houses” designed to help slaves reach the North and freedom ( Biography Editors).

When I walked up close to the statue I was amazed at the details the artist etched into Tubman’s skirt. These details included markings of footsteps, human faces, and chains. The etchings resemble the patchwork quilts created by African American women, who created these quilts by sewing together many different fabrics. The prints on a quilt express the dual experience and identity of African Americans.  Since Africans were transported here, there has been the hybrid formation of a new culture: African-American culture. This culture uses African traditions while creating Euro-American traditions. The rich designs on Tubman’s dress, borrowed from this quilt-making aesthetic, remain the most important and impressive aspect of “Swing Low: Harriet Tubman Memorial.”

Harriet Tubman is our Northern Star because she led hundreds of families out of slavery and into a new life free from bondage. Just as the Northern Star guided sailors to their desired destination, Tubman gave slaves the opportunity at a chance of a life without slavery. For that, we must be eternally grateful to Harriet Tubman. I am pleased to see that a female created this statue that depicted Tubman as a determined, valiant individual. The American flag hangs from a flagpole a few feet behind the statue, which is fitting for an American hero.

______________
* No shade, Frederick Douglass. He’s still the most famous abolitionist of the nineteenth century.

Works Cited

Biography Editors. “Harriet Tubman.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 22 May 2016. <http://www.biography.com/people/harriet-tubman-9511430>.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Dover, 1995. Print.

“Glossary.” Glossary. Web. 25 May 2016. <http://abolition.e2bn.org/glossary/Middle_Passage.html>.

Williams, Timothy. “Why is Harriet Tubman Facing South.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 11, November, 2008. Web. 22 May 2012.

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