Blogs > Cliopatria > Pimpin' Out Harriet Tubman

Feb 13, 2008

Pimpin' Out Harriet Tubman

Yah. I know that using that verb is currently controversial. So, sue me. My point is still a serious one.

Yesterday, Melissa Spore at the University of Saskatchewan e-mailed me with a question. She pointed to this essay,"Goodbye To All That (#2)" (2 February), by the prominent feminist, Robin Morgan, at The Women's Media Center. The essay is a critique of Hillary Clinton's critics and, as such, it's generated considerable discussion at Pandagon, Feministing, Slate, and even a Stanley Fish column in the NYT.

Regardless of the merits of Morgan's argument – which may be considerable – Melissa Spore asks about a part of Morgan's essay. Confronted by the refusal of some women to be liberated (and support Hillary), Morgan says:

Let a statement by the magnificent Harriet Tubman stand as reply. When asked how she managed to save hundreds of enslaved African Americans via the Underground Railroad during the Civil War, she replied bitterly,"I could have saved thousands-if only I'd been able to convince them they were slaves."

It's that Tubman quotation that Melissa Spore wonders about."That quote doesn't sound 19th c. to me. The punctuation certainly isn't mid-19th c.," Spore writes."I can't find the quote online where it isn't attached to Robin Morgan's article." In fact, you'll find over 200 internet attributions of the lines to Tubman and almost all of them linked to Morgan's article.

I might not have caught it, myself, but Melissa Spore's comment sounded right to me. So, I wrote to Kate Clifford Larson, the author of Bound For the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (2004). Larson replies as follows:

I do not think it is an authentic quote. I believe it is from one of the many 20th century fictionalized biographies. It was never recorded at anytime during her lifetime, and interviews with people who knew her after her life never indicated this was something she said. There are many quotes attributed to Tubman that are 20th century creations. This one I believe is particularly peculiar, and in my view, quite racist.

When I contacted Milton Sernett, the author of Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History (2007), he replied:

I have not found the quotation in question in any of the primary sources that purport to be faithful renditions of Tubman sayings/comments/aphorisms or the like. My impression is that this is a late 20th century quote from a fictionalized account of Tubman's life. ... Whoever wishes to use the dubious quote as a political zinger ought to cite a reliable source.

It's very difficult to prove a negative, but the authoritative opinions of Larson and Sernett put the ball in the other court. Robin Morgan: Cite your source or quit pimpin' out Harriet Tubman!

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Ralph E. Luker - 2/16/2008

What you haven't done, of course, is to do what I challenged Robin Morgan to do: cite a primary source for what she put in quotation marks. Or, even to cite a contemporary of Tubman attributing those words to Tubman. Or, even to cite a primary source for this claim -- even as a paraphrase that ought not be in quotation marks. Your way of doing history, apparently, would allow us to attribute, with quotation marks, words to an historical figure whose attitude we think that we can state for them. You'll pardon me if some of us take the word of two authorities who've spent years with the primary and secondary sources on Tubman; and ignore your two days or three minutes with wikipedia.

R.R. Hamilton - 2/16/2008

From my admittedly limited knowledge of Harriet Tubman, the quote in question, if not actually uttered by her, sounds like it expresses her sentiments.

For instance, it is widely known that she married a free black in Maryland, John Tubman, who refused her requests (and given her feelings on slavery we can imagine how strenuous these requests were) to purchase her freedom. See, e.g., It is my understanding that Mr. Tubman supported his refusal to purchase her freedom by telling her that there was not sufficient difference between being slave and being free to justify the cost.

It is a little surprising that Ms. Larson would doubt this quote, given that her book is cited extensively at Wikipedia, including a specific passage saying that Mr. Tubman urged Harriet not to try to escape slavery.

If her husband's attitude alone was not enough to make Harriet think that some blacks "didn't know they were slaves", Wikipedia provides evidence that she learned this fact from other sources:

"She also carried a revolver, and was not afraid to use it. Once a slave agreed to join her expedition, there was no turning back – and she threatened to shoot anyone who tried to return.[73] Tubman told the tale of one voyage with a group of fugitive slaves, when morale sank and one man insisted he was going to go back to the plantation. She pointed the gun at his head and said: 'You go on or die.'"[74]

There are two sources cited by Wikipedia for Tubman's stated policy of "no return" and her willingness to kill slaves to enforce it.

Therefore, the evidence presented here, as well as the evidence of the relatively few slaves redeemed by the Underground Railroad (I've seen numbers ranging from several dozen to several hundred) should make the honest researcher conclude that if the subject quote is indeed unauthentic, it nevertheless likely accurately expresses Harriet Tubman's view on why her Underground Railroad did not redeem more slaves.

A. M. Eckstein - 2/14/2008

A 21 year-old Superdelegate to the Demo convention, Jason Rae, was offered breakfast with Chelsea as a sweetener to supporting Hilary. This is from ABC news. Just google "Breakfast with Chelsea".

HAVH Mayer - 2/14/2008

We should be careful with language; we should be careful with quotations. But both this post and Milton Sernett's on Tubman myths skirt the problematic nature of Harriet Tubman's status: She was and is a heroine, undoubtably, and she is an important symbol of the agency of blacks (and black women) in the fight against slavery, but she is not in herself an important historical figure in the sense of someone without whom the course of history would have been significantly different.

She is, like Paul Revere, Pocahontas, Nathan Hale, Molly Pitcher, and Johnny Appleseed, among those historical figures whose current fame is disproportionate to their "objective" significance in their own times. Though real people, they become folkloric legends not so different from Paul Bunyan and John Henry.

Historians, I think, know how to handle intellectuals and artists who, neglected in their own day, influence future generations; and we have tracef the "images" of such major personages as Jefferson and Jackson. Heroes -- whose influence lies in the somehow less palpable realm of action -- pose greater difficulties.
(Between the idea ... and the act falls the Shadow?)

The search for the historical Tubman (as for certain others) is a legitimate enterprise, but she has transcended history now, and will not be brought down to earth unless it is discovered that she was in the pay of Jefferson Davis. It's "print the legend" time.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/14/2008

Right. That does help to narrow the field of sources for the attribution: probably a pre-1999 popular and fictionalized biography of Tubman. It seems unlikely that Morgan would have *Africana* (1999) as her source.

Jonathan Wilfred Wilson - 2/13/2008

Indeed. I was just hoping to find earlier mentions of the line, out of idle curiosity.

And I find that I spoke too soon. The Wikiquote form of the line is in the 1999 edition of Africana, but on p. 784. It's in an article by Alonford James Robinson Jr.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/13/2008

Loewen is big on policing language for correct politics. I should have mentioned the fabulous book, Sundown Towns, in the article's title.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/13/2008

Both of those are secondary sources. Unless they reference a primary source for the quote, it would still have to be considered apochryphal. At most, one could say that it is "commonly attributed to Harriet Tubman."

Jonathan Wilfred Wilson - 2/13/2008

Wikiquote has it as follows:

"I freed thousands of slaves. I could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves."


It cites Henry Louis Gates and Kwame Anthony Appiah, Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (2003), p. 299. That citation, however, is spurious. I am unable to locate the line in either the single-volume first edition (1999) or the multi-volume second edition (2005) of Africana.

Serge Lelouche - 2/13/2008

Yeah, I think people would be all over a Clinton supporter who used that word.

James W Loewen - 2/13/2008

The verb honors no one, neither Tubman nor Luker. It's just a pathetic attempt by Luker to show he is hip. It was inappropriate re Chelsea Clinton and is inappropriate re Harriet Tubman, where it was also a pathetic attempt by the MSNBC guy to show HE is hip. Luker's essay is otherwise useful, although it could use the erudition provided by another post just last week at HNN, showing that the actual number of folks Tubman rescued from the South was a little shy of 100.