I recently finished that Ken Burns documentary that I’ve been watching (more on that in another post) and decided to re-read the Vietnam War chapter in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of The United States (more on that in another post), as a follow-up. As can happen, one thing leads to another and before I knew it I was reading Zinn’s chapter/s on the Civil War, which is where I came across the words of Harriet Tubman. Here is the quote, in context:
Running away was much more realistic than armed insurrection. During the 1850s about a thousand slaves a year escaped into the North, Canada, and Mexico. Thousands ran away for short periods. And this despite the terror facing the runaway. The dogs used in tracking fugitives “bit, tore, mutilated, and if not pulled off in time, killed their prey,” Genovese says.
Harriet Tubman, born into slavery, her head injured by an overseer when she was fifteen, made her way to freedom alone as a young woman, then became the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad. She made nineteen dangerous trips back and forth, often disguised, escorting more than three hundred slaves to freedom, always carrying a pistol, telling the fugitives, “You’ll be free or die.” She expressed her philosophy: “There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive. . . .”
To me it seems obvious that it’s people like Tubman who are the true American heroes of history. This can be a tough sell, however, because elevating slaves as heroes means holding up a mirror for America, exposing our shame and guilt, which can have the effect of taking the stream out of political movements based on American exceptionalism, like the contemporary version of American exceptionalism expressed in the Twitter hashtag #MAGA. A MAGA movement didn’t necessarily need to change the past in order to render it impotent, it merely needs to ignore it and/or speak of it as rarely as possible. Yes slavery was unfortunate but, yada yada yada, that was the past and why can’t we all just move on and be color blind?