Live free or die trying

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?

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Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

3 thoughts on “Live free or die trying”

  1. Is that last sentence you speaking, or you expressing the views of the MAGA tribe? Just want to make sure 🙂

    I love that Harriet Tubman quote. In my head, I can hear the my NRA friends pointing out that she carried a pistol, which would be missing the point altogether.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He he. Yes, my summary of MAGA… Yes, the NRA itself is happy with more guns – as many as possible! – but at a certain point conservative politicians and their constituents get a little squeamish. Reagan, then governor California, infamously decided that it was time for gun control legislation when he realized how many guns the Black Panthers were carrying.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Right? Reagan- the only president that *actually* has a history of advocating for gun control and it was all because the marginalized folks of color were ‘gettin uppity’.


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