Kanye West made headlines across the nation recently when he asked a seemingly reasonable question: “Why you gotta keep reminding us about slavery?” A self-made man, West echoed another self-made man from a century earlier. Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute, famously did not wish to dwell on the past, either.
But those who don’t wish to dwell on the past ought not to spout history. And that is where West made his big mistake. To defend his assertion that black people made a choice not to flee slavery, West attributed to Harriet Tubman the statement: “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”
Research about the Underground Railroad’s most famous conductor is best not done on YouTube. In writing a new book, I have spent the past year retracing Tubman’s steps from her birthplace in Maryland to her grave in New York. The journey has been a humbling one, particularly because the person who traveled it first was so humble.
Not that she wasn’t sometimes boastful. Northern abolitionists recruited Tubman to regale audiences with tales of her harrowing midnight raids into the murderous South.
Tubman laid the stories on thick. She was an escape artist, and like all artists enjoyed recounting her accomplishments. Like the time she took live chickens to the market so she could release them to distract the men hunting her. Or the songs she sang to communicate with crouching runaways while she brazenly strolled the road, daring bounty hunters to pick her out of a crowd. She had a good voice, after all, one Kanye West would undoubtedly appreciate. It was something like honey poured over butter.
But for all her boasting, Tubman never exaggerated her accomplishments. In that respect, she was no Kanye West.
Our knowledge of Tubman is limited by the fact that she never learned to read or write. Her illiteracy may be attributable partly to the brain injury she suffered at about age 13 when she was protecting a child younger than herself from a whipping. The overseer who crushed her skull gave her a permanent disability. Until Tubman died, and every day on the Underground Railroad as a person younger than the 40-year-old West is now, she suffered seizures that rendered her temporarily unconscious and thus prey to any assailant.
So Tubman’s written record is sparse, compared with that of a historical figure like Alexander Hamilton, who was compelled to write as if “running out of time,” as Lin-Manuel Miranda has noted. But Tubman makes up for quantity with quality.
Tubman recounted her tales of the Underground Railroad to whomever inquired until she was an old woman in a rocking chair in Upstate New York. From the first interviews in 1854 to her last recorded reminiscences more than 50 years later, Tubman told the same facts in the same order again and again. She was remarkably consistent, as people tend to be when telling the truth about traumatic events they experienced personally. American generals, statesmen and reformers corroborated Tubman’s compact record.
One might say Tubman was addicted to truth-telling. She wanted other Americans to know exactly what happened in those fateful years between 1831 and 1861 when abolitionists rewrote the story of our nation. Her extraordinary accomplishments required no exaggeration to make listeners gasp.
Tubman’s incredible story involved no fewer than 13 harrowing trips to the South to rescue members of her family too scared to attempt the flight to freedom alone, as well as strangers she found along the way. Her sisters were mostly older. All four were sold or died before she could help them. Her brothers were mostly younger. She brought all four north.
Tubman made no claims about how many people she saved. Historians estimate around 70. But the four she was unable to save must have rested heavily on her spirit. She stopped going back only after the Civil War broke out. Then she volunteered as an Army scout and helped organize a raid that liberated 750 enslaved South Carolinians.
Never once in recounting this tale did Tubman imply that those millions who did not make it out, including her four sisters, chose their tragic fate.
West has suggested that basketball star Michael Jordan might be a more fitting cameo for the new $20 bill. But we shouldn’t play games with history. West’s butchering of Tubman’s record does a disservice to his fans and followers. It distorts crucial parts of our past for political purposes, cheapening what should be a national treasure. If West wants to lecture on the subject, he should first enroll in History 101. There he will have to dwell some on the personal sacrifice that people like Tubman embraced to make America, truly, the land of the free.