Now I will write about the development of the “Fearless” designs honoring Harriet Tubman. When I was surveying people about their heroes, Harriet Tubman came up many times. I didn’t know much about her. Like many famous people I have researched, a library search comes up with more books targeted to a juvenile audience than to an adult one. So one afternoon I was picking up my kid at the library after school and I had grabbed a few books about Tubman. My kid said, “Oh, don’t do something about her, every year someone does a report on Harriet Tubman, I am so tired of her!” So my kid knew more about Harriet than I did, but maybe not enough.
There are some things about Harriet that I can imagine show up in every “Black History Month” oral report: 1.) Born a slave in Maryland in 1822. 2.) At 12 years old was hit in the head, nearly died, and suffered the effects for the rest of her life (heard voices and had sleeping spells). 3.) She was an entrepreneur. Her owner allowed her to hire herself out and keep some of the proceeds. She invested in some horses to help with her jobs. 4.) She was extremely physically strong, as strong or stronger than most men. 5.) She was soaked in the Christian faith and believed she spoke directly with God. 6.) In 1849, after one failed attempt with her brothers (who were too afraid and gave up), she succeeds in emancipating herself by escaping to Pennsylvania. 7.) Between 1850 and 1860, she comes back to Maryland about 10 times to help her family and friends escape slavery. She helps free about 70 people this way and became a famous conductor on the Underground Railway, never losing a passenger. Many escapes are quite dramatic, showing her intelligence, dedication, and fearlessness. 8.) 1862–1865: during the American Civil War Tubman works for the Union forces, including as a scout and a spy. She also develops programs to help emancipated slaves figure out how to make a living. In 1863 she becomes the first woman to lead an armed raid for the U.S. Among other things, she helps free over 700 slaves from Confederate territory. She is never paid for this service, neither does she receive a pension for this work. 9.) After the war she works as a public speaker and a women’s suffrage supporter. 10.) She works to establish a home for elderly and poor African Americans in Auburn, New York. She dies there in 1913.
So, those are the basics. That’s the oral report. Now where’s the art? I was in the middle of “Bride of Hurricanes” when I dropped everything to go to “Tubman Days” on the Eastern Shore. How lucky for me that Harriet was from Dorchester County Maryland, only a couple hours from my studio! How lucky for me that the Maryland Park Service and the National Park Service both have Harriet Tubman Parks, together with the Underground Railroad National Byway, and that on March 10 (Tubman Day!) there was to be a symposium with leading scholars and historians about Harriet and the meaning of freedom, along with presentations, seminars, and tours over several days. I did the Tubman driving tour whilst listening to the Tubman app! I met her most recent biographer, whose (non-juvenile!) book I subsequently read. But the art, I found that in the marshy landscape of the Blackwater Preserve, which has changed little since Harriet was six and hired out to a farmer who set her to work checking muskrat traps, in winter, while she was sick with the measles. (I felt like a Harriet groupie, going from one “point of interest” to another.) There was art, also, in Harriet’s words.
Here I would like to pursue a tangent about muskrat. After I had heard the story about the muskrat traps and six-year-old sick Araminta (she changed her name to Harriet later), after I left the Blackwater Preserve, I was thinking, “I wonder what the muskrat were for—to eat? Do they still use muskrat?” Driving into Cambridge I saw a sign in front of a store, “Local Fresh Muskrat.” I did not go in. Should I have gone in? I had oysters for lunch instead. And then later that day I visited the museum in Dover, Delaware, where, in a vitrine, I saw a stuffed muskrat and the answer to my question. “Muskrats, or marsh rabbits, have been trapped for many decades. ‘Ratting’ is the farmer-waterman’s job. At one time, their pelts were sold for fur clothing and meat was served in most homes and restaurants.”
Her knowledge of the landscape of the Eastern Shore was essential to Harriet’s success as a conductor. She had to navigate the waterways and woods at night. She had to travel in the winter months when the nights were longest. This land was in her flesh; her flesh was of this land. Knowledge of the underground railroad traveled along the waterways which were populated by strong communities of freed black watermen. Harriet would have had access to these people while she hired herself out. I photographed the marsh grasses from below, as if I were hiding in them. I photographed the water, something I have been doing in many places for years. On the other side of the water: a marshy shore.
Another image I used was a printer’s dingbat from the time showing a woman slave escaping, a satchel in her hand. These were used again and again for runaway slave notices in the newspaper. I also used the printed notice of “Minty’s” (Araminta’s) first unsuccessful escape with her brothers in 1849.
Note that in the advert, Minty is described as “fine looking.” Harriet was a good looking young woman. And small.
These are the words I have chosen to print on these pieces: “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person.” This is how Harriet describes what she did when she emancipated herself. She had to look at herself to see that she was the same person, only that now that she was in a free state, there had been a qualitative change. Her body belonged to herself. Those were HER hands now, not her owner’s. One’s hands are the easiest part of one’s own body to see, but they also represent any work that you do, your action upon the world. That action was now hers to govern. The fruits of her actions were to be her wealth now. Here is the whole quote as written in Sarah Bradford’s 1869 biography: “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 the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.” This moment of looking at light through the trees (it must have been dawn) I have tried to capture in the depiction of hands on these pieces.
The largest word on the scarf and shawl is “FEARLESS.” I have been thinking about Harriet’s fearlessness. It was described by her “passengers” as a single-minded (almost uncanny) and fierce dedication to achieving escape. She threatened to shoot those who gave up along the way, because they would be a threat to the success of the other passengers. I have a hypothesis that this fearlessness, which should not be confused with recklessness—she was very cautious and understood danger—this fearlessness might have come about as a result of her head injury. She just was not afraid. Danger would not stop her. She would be free, and she would free her family too, because, “There was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land. But I was free, and they [her family] should be free.” God spoke to her, told her what to do, and she was not afraid. This may be the central attribute of Sister Harriet. It is no less admirable if it came about by a physical accident. Through her fearlessness she took possession of her own body, her own self. Wear that.
When Minty was lying on the bed of the loom, her blood crusted on her crazy unkempt hair, and she was still not dying, her owner brought by one potential buyer after another. One man looked at her and said, “She ain’t worth sixpence!” And now, as everyone knows, Harriet Tubman’s visage will soon appear on the American twenty dollar bill. The following depiction is a perfectly appropriate interpretation of Harriet Tubman, born Araminta Ross.