If Harriet Tubman were alive and licensed to drive an automobile, would she talk at other cars on the road?
“I’m leaving you space, baby!”
Janice Curtis Greene slows her sedan on Liberty Heights Avenue just outside of Baltimore to allow the signaling car on her left to move in. When he doesn’t, she huffs and steps on the gas.
“My husband doesn’t like driving with me,” she says.
In the back seat is a rolling suitcase, a garment bag and a wooden staff that will double as a rifle, a broom, a hatchet, a harness and a scythe after Greene transforms into Harriet Tubman for an hour.
At 9:20 a.m. on one of the last days of Black History Month, Greene, 66, a professional storyteller and embodier of African American historical figures, is on her way to one of the final events of her busy season. February is her “bread-and-butter month,” so she packs it to the gills with gigs, some of which require her to perform as Rosa Parks and/or Tubman, her “alter ego,” at schools, libraries, senior centers, museums and corporate offices such as Exxon Mobil.
She runs through her lines as she drives.
“There was one of two things I had a right to: liberty or death!” she says, invoking the words of the Underground Railroad conductor. “If I could not have one, I would take the other, for no man would take me alive!”
She taps her blinker to signal a left turn onto West North Avenue.
For 28 days, the United States cares a little bit more about one part of its history. Greene knows that American history means everyone’s history and that all parts of it should be honored and taught equally during all months, but the calendar is the calendar, and gimmicks are gimmicks, and business is business.
Greene never drives to an event dressed as Harriet Tubman, because Harriet Tubman would not drive a car.
Greene never talks on stage about Harriet Tubman being dead, because at that moment Harriet Tubman is very much alive.
“You will see me grow older as Harriet Tubman,” Greene says, turning south onto Interstate 83, “but I will. Not. Die.”
Tubman was raised as a nursemaid and field hand in Dorchester County, Md. Greene was raised as a Catholic schoolgirl in a Baltimore rowhouse with four “over-the-top” siblings, a father who was a stationary engineer and a mother who loved to play “West Side Story” and “Camelot” records so the family could sing while they cleaned together. In 1849, Tubman escaped from her plantation and began spiriting hundreds of slaves out of Maryland through a relay of safe houses. In the 1960s, Greene had a front-row seat to the Civil Rights movement through her older siblings (her brother was a Freedom Rider). She joined the National Association of Black Storytellers decades later and, after retiring from the Social Security Administration in 2008, made her storytelling hobby into a job, calling herself Janice the Griot. Now she melds history with performance.
“I’m a ham,” she says. “I’m a natural-born ham. Come from a family of hams. But I absolutely love. What. I. Do.”
She makes a left into the back parking lot of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in downtown Baltimore. Inside she’ll do Tubman for 50 middle schoolers.
Sometimes students are listless or rude, and she’ll think: “Poor babies.”
Sometimes the students are inquisitive and rapt, and she’ll think: “Good as gold.”
Greene rolls her suitcase through the service entrance of the museum and takes an elevator to the second floor. She enters the theater, unzips her luggage and starts retrieving items, like a Mary Poppins who resembles Eartha Kitt. Onto the table she places a batik bedspread, then a quilt with shapes patterned after signage along the Underground Railroad, then two books on Tubman, then steel chains she got from Home Depot, then a square of burlap to evoke slave garb, then a portable speaker she connects to her iPad.
As “Oh, Freedom” begins to play out across the empty auditorium, Greene slips into the green room.
“At this point, I start channeling,” she says.
To play Tubman, she’s got to take the makeup off. She has to plait her dreadlocks for February, so they fit under headscarves. Every year, when the month ends, she bolts to her manicurist to finally add some color to her nails. But for now, she dons a black blouse from the Salvation Army and cinches her homemade brown skirt with her husband’s belt. She pulls the headscarf down to hide the white hairs at her temples, since she’ll play Tubman from 6 years old into her 90s.
She pops a cough drop into her mouth. February also means having a constant cold, contracted from school group after school group.
Back in the theater, as “Go Down Moses” plays, she walks slowly through the seats, waving her hands, then clapping them, anointing the room so students enter “a positive atmosphere.” As a class from Benjamin Tasker Middle School files in, Greene slips behind a black curtain to the side of the stage.
“This is a whole generation of kids who’ll learn things I never learned,” she whispers.
When she reemerges, she is Harriet Tubman as a child, wide-eyed and oppressed, using the wooden staff as a broom.
“ ‘Enslaved’ means you have my body,” she says to the students, “but I wasn’t gonna be a slave, because I was gonna keep my spirit.”
Then she is Harriet the rebel, earning an Army general’s reputation, wielding the staff as a rifle. Then she is Harriet in old age, wrapping a white knit shawl around her shoulders, leaning on the staff as a cane. All the while she narrates her life story. She ends the 35-minute program by tottering off stage, talking about the Lord coming for her any day now, and the students know this is a cue to applaud.
Greene reemerges, walking and talking normally, putting on her modern glasses to break character. She takes questions. She closes by leveraging Tubman’s story into a mandate.
Tubman “was a black female born enslaved, with a disability, and she was one of the bravest people born in this country — black, white or anything,” Greene says. “Think about that. There isn’t anything that can hold you back. If you take nothing else away from this, take that. Thank you and have a good day.”
The students scamper out of the theater. Greene repacks her suitcase, changes her clothes, lets her dreads back out, rolls her supplies out of the museum and slides into her car. Then it’s back on Liberty Heights Avenue, headed home to Windsor Mill, Md.
“You got an arrow!” she says through her windshield to a car in front of her, also letting an expletive slip. “That means you can turn!”
She shakes her head and smiles. That impatience, that wildness. That language. “I gotta pray about that,” she says, stepping on the gas.