IVP - Strangely Dim - Harriet Tubman

March 30, 2009

Harriet Tubman

Seeing as how Women's History Month is just about over, and seeing as how there have been so many fantastic women in history, and seeing as how I like to celebrate people, I thought I'd better take a hint from the woman I've chosen and take some action.

I'm taking us out of the world of the first few centuries after Christ's death (when the women Dave and Christa have blogged about lived) and into an entirely different world, which is what this woman's story has always done for me--me who has lived in white suburbia my whole life, whose only injuries in life have been sports-related (and not very serious), whose childhood was filled with swing sets and dolls, who sometimes complained about going to school . . .

I first learned about Harriet Tubman in elementary school when I read a biography on her for a book report. What do I remember from that book? That she was born into slavery, that she escaped and that she helped hundreds of other slaves find freedom via the Underground Railroad. From relatively early on in my life I've had a kind of disbelieving fascination with the period of slavery in the United States. It was, and is, still hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that, not that long ago, millions of African Americans were viewed as less than human, as property, that they were bought and sold and beaten and whipped, all legally, as an accepted and normal practice in society. Stories like Harriet's made it a little more real for me, which I need, even as I hate the fact that it happened at all. Her story helps by showing both sides, though: the evil that humans are capable of in how they treat other human beings, but also the courage and goodness we're capable of as well.

It's been a number of years since I read Harriet's biography, so I looked her up to rediscover some of the specifics I've forgotten about her life--specifics that make her even more impressive:

  • In her earlier years she was beaten and whipped; in one instance she was seriously injured when an angry slaveowner threw a metal weight at a different slave, but missed, hitting Harriet in the head instead. She suffered effects from the injury for the rest of her life.

  • Almost as soon as she escaped from slavery, she went back to rescue family members. And friends. And slaves she'd never met. And she was so good at it, they couldn't catch her (though there were high rewards for her capture). For her skillful and successful guidance of slaves from the South to freedom, people dubbed her "Moses."

  • When the Civil War started she joined the Union Army and worked as a nurse, a cook, a scout and a spy. She led a raid that freed hundreds of slaves.

  • Later on in her life she fought not just for the rights of African Americans but particularly for women. She also donated land for a nursing home (named the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged), which is where she lived out her last days.

What. a. woman. I imagine her as spunky, animated, straightforward--a no-nonsense woman--as well as compassionate, level-headed, calm. And, though Harriet's personality seems so different from Julian of Norwich or Clare, she too had a deep, rich faith. And that faith is, I think, what must have brought about the quality I most admire her for: her courage. If I could have sat next to her nursing-home bed in her last days, I think I would have simply had to start with words of Sara Groves: "Tell me what you know about God and the world and the human soul." My guess is that deep suffering produced deep faith, which produced deep courage.

These days I feel much more like the Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz than Harriet Tubman of the Underground Railroad. But perhaps her story--and the stories of so many others who have suffered and overcome and then worked to bring so many more out of suffering--will be my "Oz," my "wizard," spurring me on to do my part in freeing the many people who are still living in slavery today--whether it's emotional or physical or spiritual--and reminding me that the God in whom she believed so deeply is the same One I worship today. He still desires justice, and he still invites women of faith, like Harriet and Clare and Macrina and Helena and maybe some of us, to be strong and courageous and to follow God on whatever difficult path he lays out for us.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at March 30, 2009 4:08 PM Bookmark and Share

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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