Last week, Russell Simmons posted a link to a “comedy” sketch about an alleged Harriet Tubman sex tape. It was implied that Ms. Tubman intended to use this tape as a way to blackmail her master into setting her free. Personally, I felt a deep sense of disappointment and betrayal while I watched the video. I later thought reflected on what Harriet Tubman had accomplished and sacrificed in her life as an African-American women in the United States during the 19th century. That reflection, on the heels of watching the video, quite frankly pissed me off. But I’m not going to use this space to go off on a rant. I’m going to present you with the facts of her life and let you, the reader, make your own judgment.
Araminta “Harriet” Ross Tubman Davis was born enslaved in Maryland in either 1819 or 1820. Her maternal grandmother Modesty was born in Africa and is said to have been of Ashanti descent (a tribal group that can still be found in modern day Ghana). Her mother Harriet, also known as “Rit”, once threatened to split open the heads of her master and a slave trader if they tried to sell off her children. This event is said to have influenced Araminta’s, or “Minty’s” belief in that resistance to slavery was possible.
As a teenager, an overseer demanded that Araminta help restrain another slave who was about to be punished. When she refused, the slave got away and the overseer threw a heavy metal object at the retreating man’s direction. The overseer missed his target. The object hit Araminta in the head instead, almost crushing her skull. As a result, she suffered from seizures and blackouts for the rest of her life.
Araminta married free black John Tubman in 1844. It was during this time that she adopted her mother’s name and became Harriet Tubman. Even though she was married to a free man, Harriet was still her master’s property. In 1849, Harriet heard talk that she and some other slaves were to be sold. Her husband wasn’t willing to leave Maryland, so she left John behind and ran away toward freedom with two of her brothers.
Along the way, her brothers became frightened and went back to the plantation. But Harriet kept on trekking until she reached the free state of Pennsylvania. There she found work in Philadelphia and began plotting to go back to Maryland to help free the rest of her family. Ultimately, Harriet Tubman went back South, at her own risk of being re-enslaved, between thirteen and nineteen times. It is unknown how many people she actually led to freedom. Estimates range from 50 to 300 people, including most of her family. She was a conductor on the Underground Railroad for eight years and was never captured nor did she ever lose a “passenger.”
Harriet did go back for her husband but he had re-married by then and was not interested in moving north to a free state.
(Note: the “Sex Tape” video was set in 1851. Had the creators bothered to have done their homework, they would have known that Harriet Tubman was in Philadelphia at that time. There would have been no reason to blackmail Master for her freedom. She was already free.)
During the Civil War, Harriet Tubman initially served as a nurse in the Hilton Head, South Carolina area. It wasn’t long before she was out scouting with the Union Army, drawing on her Underground Railroad knowledge of how to remain undetected as they mapped the area. She was also able to provide information that led to the Union capture of Jacksonville, Florida. She also led the 1863 Union raid around Confederate mines and across the Combahee River in South Carolina. She continued to serve as a scout and a nurse for the remainder of the war. On her way home to Auburn, New York after the war ended, Harriet’s arm was broken as she was forced from the passenger car on the train into the smoking car.
She didn’t receive a pension for her wartime service until 1899, 34 years after hostilities end. In 1873 a Wisconsin congressman proposed a bill to compensate Tubman for her wartime service. The bill was defeated.
After the Civil War
Harriet Tubman spent the remainder of her life taking odd jobs so she could care for her elderly parents. She teetered into poverty more often than not, in part due to the government’s delay in honoring her soldier’s pension claims. She authorized the publication of her biography as a way to raise funds. She also made ends meet by lecturing on women’s suffrage.
She did acquire a bit of property in Auburn, New York. She set aside some of it to create a home for aged and indigent “colored people.” Harriet Tubman died of pneumonia in 1913 surrounded by family and friends.
Honors bestowed upon Harriet Tubman include: burial with military honors; a World War II Liberty ship was named after her, the SS Harriet Tubman; a 1978 United States postage stamp; and commemoration every July 20th in the Episcopal Church.
Please note that I have left out the details of many of Harriet Tubman’s accomplishments. My intent here is to give an introduction to the woman and why how she was portrayedl in the “Sex Tape” video was such an insult. This woman was such a badass in a time when most women, whether African-American or not, had little say in their everyday lives or what could or could not be done to their bodies. To see her reduced to a woman who schemed on her back to become what she was left me speechless. I really did feel like it was a slap in the face of her bravery and sacrifice. Harriet Tubman was never a sexual manipulator. She was a real life American heroine.
Given the theme of this blog, I will add that Harriet Tubman also experienced romance later in life, marrying a man 22 years her junior. (Take that Janie and Tea Cake!)
America’s Story From America’s Library (Library of Congress): http://www.americaslibrary.gov/aa/tubman/aa_tubman_subj.html
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center: http://freedomcenter.org/underground-railroad/history/people/Harriet-Tubman
Image used Courtesy of the Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003674596/