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51% #1701: Happy Birthday, Harriet Tubman

The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project is running in Ms. magazine through March 10.
The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project is running in Ms. magazine through March 10.

On this week’s 51%, we speak with University at Albany professor Dr. Janell Hobson about the life and work of Harriet Tubman, and a new project with Ms. magazine to mark Tubman’s 200th birthday. We also speak with author Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts about her book Black Joy: Stories of Resistance, Resilience, and Restoration.


You’re listening to 51%, a WAMC production on women’s issues and experiences. Thanks for joining us, I’m Jesse King.

When you think of prominent women in American history, who comes to mind? Susan B. Anthony? Rosa Parks? Harriett Tubman? Well, hopefully all three and more – but Harriet Tubman is perhaps one of the most popular female figures in American history, particularly Black history. In fact, the abolitionist won a popularity contest of sorts in a 2015 poll gaging which historic woman should be the new face of the $20 bill. A redesigned bill with her likeness is set to rollout by 2030.

Growing up, I was primarily taught about Harriet Tubman’s work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad – but like all of us, there were many sides to her: a liberator, a nurse, a veteran of the Civil War, spy, suffragist, daughter, sister, mother, and friend. I thought it’d be nice to learn a little more about Tubman’s work, who she was, and her legacy. Of course, it’s Black History Month, but we’re also circling Tubman’s 200th birthday: she was believed to have been born Araminta Ross in late February / early March 1822.

Dr. Janell Hobson, a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University at Albany, is the impetus behind an initiative to commemorate the “Tubman 200.” The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project is a special collection of essays, poetry, artwork, and interactive pieces honoring Tubman in Ms. magazine through March 10. Hobson has been studying Tubman for years, and told me more about the magazine’s guest of honor.

Dr. Janell Hobson
Dr. Janell Hobson

Her story starts in Dorchester County, Maryland, when she was born - or maybe we can even go further than that. Because I know in my introductory essay, I talk about her maternal grandmother, who came from the Gold Coast of West Africa, what we now call Ghana. And her maternal grandmother was called Modesty, and she was from the Asante Tribe in Ghana, and she was brought over to Eastern Shore, Maryland through the transatlantic slave trade sometime during the American Revolutionary War period, in the 18th century. And that grandmother gave birth to her mother, who was also called Harriet - actually, Harriet Tubman renames herself when she married. She named herself after her mother, although everyone called her her mother “Rit” for short. So that is where I would start with her story, just thinking of how slavery was a kind of matrilineal heritage. And by that, I mean, most slave laws in the United States actually stipulated, they required that all children that are born to enslaved women would themselves be enslaved. So it doesn't matter who the father is - the father could be enslaved, or the father could be a free Black person, or the father could even be a white man, but if the mother is enslaved, that child will be enslaved. And that's kind of how we get this idea of race, as well as race shaped by gender politics. So what I like about Harriet Tubman’s story is that she rejects that birthright outright.

And so how exactly did she work to liberate herself, and what were the driving forces of her becoming a conductor on the Underground Railroad? 

In 1849 is when Harriet Tubman attempts to escape from slavery. And she actually attempts to escape twice - the first time, September 17, she tries to run away with two of her brothers, but they lose their way, so they end up returning. And part of the reason why she wanted to run away is because she was being threatened with sale further south. Her owner had died earlier that year in March, and his widow was contemplating selling off her slaves to settle whatever debts she accrued in her widowhood. Harriet Tubman got wind of this and decided that, you know, if she's to go further south, she's not going to see anybody, any of her loved ones, ever again. That already happened, because she had already lost three sisters to the auction block. So she tries the first time with two brothers, they end up returning, and then sometime later on in the fall, she runs away on her own this time. She's able to kind of follow some of the instructions she had gathered about the Underground Railroad, so she's hiding out by day and follows the North Star by night. She does this 100-mile trek to Philadelphia, and that's when she's able to reach freedom. But she makes the choice to go back because she was all alone, and she could not feel herself being free when her family and friends are back in slavery. So that was very much the motivation for going back over and over again. So she made roughly 13 trips back to the south for the decade of the 1850s, and she rescues around 70 people, and was able to also pass instructions on to an equal number of other people who were able to follow her instructions to get to freedom.

It does require you to think about the skills that she had. That's one of the things that I liked about the different essays we’ve been able to highlight in the series for this project. For example, one of our earlier articles was by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, who is a theorist of astrophysics, and she writes about Harriet Tubman being a great astronomer. For example, being able to follow the North Star - she learned these skills from people like her father, Ben Ross, and others in her community who learned to live off the land, who learned to navigate by the night sky, navigate through the forest, being able to use the forest as a way to be able to track your way and find your way around. She's also disabled. She was severely injured when she was an adolescent, sometime between 1834 and 1836. She's on an errand to a neighborhood store, where she's actually struck accidentally - there was an overseer striking this two pound lead weight at a runaway slave, and she got in the way, and she was struck in the head and she nearly died. But from this injury, she experienced debilitating seizures, epileptic seizures, and based on some of the descriptions of what she experienced, you know, visions and strange dreams - she had out of body sensations. So some historians, I'm thinking of someone like Kate Larson, for example, who contributed, believe that she suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy. And those are some of the conditions [she faced]. So we also have to imagine, not only did she have great skill in being able to navigate her way through the night, navigate her way from Maryland to Pennsylvania, but she's also doing this as a disabled Black woman.

Wow. And she also helped organize a raid, correct?

Yes, Actually, because of her skills as an Underground Railroad conductor, there were those who - and that's the interesting thing about Harriet Tubman, she seems to have known so many important people. So the governor of Massachusetts immediately recommends her as someone who should be volunteering to provide service for the Union forces in the Civil War. She gets involved in the Civil War in 1862, when she is sent down to Beaufort, South Carolina, where she's working as a spy, as a scout, as a nurse, also as a cook. And so that's part of the work she was doing when she started scouting the Combahee River, South Carolina. In 1863, June 2 1863, she becomes the first woman in U.S. history to actually lead troops and their commander in this military raid, and they're able to free 756 people. It's amazing. And that's an interesting question, I think, in terms of why is it more people don't know that about her? I think one of the ironies of that is, we know who Harriet Tubman is precisely because she agreed to dictate a biography about her life to make up for not getting paid for her services as a Civil War veteran.

You mentioned in your introduction a description of Harriet Tubman by biographer Milton Sernett, saying she is a “litmus test” for diversity and inclusion. Can you tell me what you mean by that, or what he meant by that?

OK, so Milton Sernett was actually referring to multiculturalism, we now call it diversity and inclusion, so I just updated that - but he actually was referring to the ways in which, when Harriet Tubman is introduced into the curriculum, we then have debates about the appropriateness for having that. And I think that it's apropos to what we're dealing with now with the different kinds of conversations we're having about inclusive education, or even the ways that a term like critical race theory gets bandied about and means different things to different people, based on their own ideas about what race and racial history means in this country. So Harriet Tubman is an interesting, I think, “litmus test,” precisely because she's the most popular Black woman in American history - right alongside Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks, obviously, but she's definitely one of the most recognized women. So when you bring her into the conversation, it's an invitation to bring in other aspects of Black history and Black women's history. So she's a gateway in some way.

And I think what's interesting about Harriet Tubman is her story ends in freedom - not only ending in freedom, it ends in liberation. She's liberating other people, whether we're talking about her going back to the slave south multiple times, or with what she was able to do during the Civil War, and free in 756 people. So she's actively engaged in fighting for freedom. She's a freedom fighter. It also forces us to see Black women, Black people in general, who have had a hand in their own freedom and in their own liberation. So that that changes the kind of narrative that you create about American history, where it's no longer about, “Oh, President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation.” That obviously needs to be complicated when you realize, actually, if you look at those who were enslaved and who were able to free themselves, they had a hand in their own freedom. They had a hand in their own liberation. We need to recognize that, and someone like Harriet Tubman, she's living proof that people did not just passively accept the status quo.

I think you might have already just touched on it, but I was gonna ask you, what do you hope readers most get out of this project?

What's interesting is that for Ms. Magazine, this year is also a milestone for them. It's their 50th anniversary. They we're very much involved in the use of journalism and media for the frontlines of the feminist movement. I think it's important to recognize that, in addition to Harriet Tubman’s importance to Black history, she's also important to women's history as well. She was part of the women's suffrage movement. So issues of voting rights is also part of that legacy. The week before she died - she died March 10, 1913 - the week before, March 3, was the women's national suffrage march that they had in Washington D.C. And she was already too ill to attend, but she did deliver a message through Black suffragists, specifically Mary B. Talbert, and she told the women suffragists, you know, to stand together: “Tell the women to stand together for God will not forsake us.” Now, granted, the women did not stand together - there were quite a few racist white suffragists who refused to unite with the Black women who attended, and even tried to insist that they get at the back of the line of the parade. Which is unfortunate, because that is so against the kind of message that Harriet Tubman put forth - because what's interesting about Harriet Tubman is she is very much a leader within Black communities, she's able to organize and work within her own community, but she also did really good solidarity work with other people. And there are other white abolitionists and white supporters of Black rights that she was able to work with. She was able to work with John Brown, she was able to work with William Lloyd Garrison, she was able to work with Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott. And it's because of her ability to work across those racial lines, and across the gender lines, that I think why we still know her, because so many people were willing to write about her.

In addition to the series of essays, in which you can learn more about Harriet Tubman, you can also explore her whole life history - we have a very comprehensive timeline. We also have an interactive calculator to figure out just how much we actually owe Harriet Tubman for her enslaved labor. We have poetry, we have a public haiku tribute. So the public is actually invited to submit a haiku in tribute to Harriet Tubman’s bicentennial. It is a birthday celebration, so we're trying to celebrate her, and to show that is part of history, but it's also very much a history that is still very living, it's very present. I think we can think of our time in 2022 as a crossroads moment, where we could either go back in time to doing things in an oppressive way, or we can actually move forward towards a more equitable future that is based on a firmer foundation of justice for all. Harriet Tubman is somebody who can actually help us in terms of getting into the right direction.

Dr. Janell Hobson is the editor of the Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project out now in Ms. magazine, both online and in print, through March 10. 


Our next guest is celebrating a milestone of her own. Tracey Michae'l Lewis-Giggetts has been writing professionally for roughly 20 years. She's published at least 15 works, teaches English and Black Studies at the Community College of Philadelphia, and is the founder of HeARTspace, a community to help those dealing with trauma via storytelling and the arts. To mark her 20-year career, she released her latest book at the start of Black History Month, titled Black Joy: Stories of Resistance, Resilience, and Restoration. Throughout 36 autobiographical essays, Lewis-Giggetts explores the restorative strength of joy in Black culture, and the ways in which it can be used for both personal and communal healing.

Tracey Michae'l Lewis-Giggetts
Tracey Michae'l Lewis-Giggetts

“You know, Black Joy kind of came out of my personal experience. It came out of me wrestling with what joy felt like in my body, going to therapy and my therapist, like, literally asking me, ‘What does joy feel like?’ And I, you know, being 40 some-odd-years-old and like, ‘I don't know.’ And so beginning to unpack that work, and then using it, really, as an entry point for looking at how Black people in general have been able to use joy as a way to resist, but also, I think, to heal from some of the trauma and some of our historical and even present day experiences.”

You make it a point in the beginning of the book to differentiate between happiness and joy. So to start off, how do you define joy, and especially Black joy?

Absolutely. I think happiness is, you know, that moment - let's just say I'm on the roller coaster at Six Flags, and like, I'm excited, and I'm with my family, and I'm having a good time. It tends to just show up in particular moments. I think joy is something that is ever present, even if we don't feel it, so to speak. It is always accessible to us, if we know how to access it, right? It's like, you know, how does an enslaved person still laugh, when laughter literally could have been a potential for death? It doesn't mean that they were happy about their situation, it meant that there was an underlying, almost like a spiritual undercurrent. Black joy is simply all of that human stuff within the context and the experience of Black people in America, but also globally. And so Black joy looks a little different, because it lives in the same container, if you will, of grief and trauma and all of the other experiences that are maybe not the same as other groups.

You lay out early on that Black joy can be a “mechanism for resistance, a method of resilience and a master plan for restoration.” Can you elaborate on that a little more for me?

Sure. I mean, Black joy as resistance, I think, is the catchphrase that we've been hearing especially over the last couple of years or so. I think what that just means is that in the midst of protests, in the midst of the fight for rights and equality, and equity, and all those things, there are also opportunities for our joy to stand as a way of saying, “I am human.” It is a way to fight the dehumanization that comes with racism, and discrimination, and white supremacy, and all those kinds of things. Like the protests of summer 2020, there was two things happening there: there was the confrontations with police, there was the chanting, there was the faces we saw on the media - but then there were also dancing and singing. And in Philly, there was a couple who got married right in the middle [of the protest]. So there were these, you know, this undercurrent, as I said before, of joy that was ever present. But I think that it's also the way that Black folks have always healed. When we get to resilience and restoration, what I mean is that there has always been, especially somatically in our bodies, ways that we have been able to move that trauma out of us so we can live another day. So we can take care of our family. So we can do what we need to do. So it's a resistance, but it's also the way we have always healed.

I like how you also pointed out that joy should be founded on self love and compassion. Why do you think that?

I think the biggest thing is it spurs longevity. That fine line between happiness and joy that I talked about, it gets really gray if joy is only experienced on a moment-by-moment basis, or we can only feel it on a moment-by-moment basis. And I think having a foundation of self-compassion, of grace, of self-love, allows for you to be always aware of where joy is, even if you're grieving and not actively able to call it up, so to speak. You're aware that it's there. The only way you know that is if you are able to see yourself differently, and I think that's what I kind of get into, especially early on in the book. Like, I want Black folks to maybe eschew or get rid of the gaze of what maybe white people, or what the government, whoever else might be thinking, and focus internally, look at our community and say, “We love each other. We love us.” And in doing so, our joy becomes more prominent. And I feel like it will add to our movements, it will make our movements have more longevity. Even more so than what it already has.

So I know you touched on it a little bit earlier, but how did you personally access or discover your joy?

As I said, I had a therapist who asked me, like, “What does it feel like?” And I was like, “I don't know.” So I had to begin that work. And I tell the story in the book, that I just happened to be watching a very popular television show, and I was just grinning and laughing. I'm a storyteller, so I just was happy because or, you know, experiencing joy, I think, because I was excited about the characters and the way it was being written, and the layers, and all those kinds of things. And my husband walks in, and he's like, “Something weird is going on. Let me leave.” But in that moment, I think I'm self aware enough to say, “Wait a minute, my hands feel weird. My chest is heaving, like, I'm excited, I'm happy. Ah, okay. This is what joy feels like in my body.” And not so that I can run around, I guess, telling people that - although I guess that's what I'm doing in this book - but so that when I have, as I've had recently, back-to-back losses in my family, when I am experiencing frustration or anger at the Voting Rights Act not being passed, I can call upon [it]. It's like a screenshot or a snapshot, right, that I can remember what joy felt like in my body, and I can go get it - not so that I can push the pain aside, but so I can create some balance so that I can, again, live another day.

I'm very sorry to hear about your losses. Now that you are able to more easily access your joy, what are some of the other ways that you nurture it and practice self-love and self-compassion? Did writing this book open up new ways for you to do that?

I think one of the things is resting. I love the Nap Ministry that's online, and how she really emphasizes rest as a way to counter the colonization, white supremacy mindset that's out there. It’s a form of defiance, right? [To think that] it's not something that you earn, it's something that is your right. And I feel like I think of joy in the same way, and I think of self-love in the same way. And so, for me, it's about my morning rituals, it's about my practices - you have meditation and prayer - it’s about the ways I decide to say no. And I'm still working on it, but I try to be OK with saying no. And the way I snuggle with my daughter, and I look at her, and I see myself - the free version of myself - and I take that in and sit with it, so that it becomes one with me, right? Like, I then become just as free as she is, even though I have all the stuff and all the bags. So yeah, writing the book, I think helped me to explore additional ways, things that I wasn't doing beforehand that I do try to make a conscious effort to do now.

Black Joy: Stories of Resistance, Resilience, and Restoration
Black Joy: Stories of Resistance, Resilience, and Restoration

I feel like there are a lot of conversations going on right now about mental health and self-care and self-compassion. Is there anything that you feel is sort of missing from that conversation at the moment, or something that you would like to add to that conversation?

I mean, I love the fact that we're talking about it more. I love that in a lot of ways we are removing the stigma of things like therapy or therapeutic interventions, or even medication, or any of that. I love that that's happening. I think there's some decolonization work that still has to happen. There's also issues around access and privilege. I recognize my privilege as someone who can go to a therapist every week - not everybody has access to health insurance, or access to that. And you can destigmatize it all you want, but if I can't get to it just because of economic reasons or whatever…that's a barrier that I think needs to be talked about even more. I know there are people talking about it, but like, even more, and I gravitate toward that, because it disproportionately affects Black and brown folks, you know? The people who are experiencing this generational trauma, if you will, as a result of white supremacist systems, also are being limited in being able to access one of the many ways [to address it] - which, by the way, is the reason why we've come up with our own tools, including joy, to heal. Because we didn't have access to that. So I think that's probably the conversation I would like to see more of.

While you were writing this book, was there a part that was particularly special or therapeutic to you?

I think the thread that moves me the most, when I think about the essays, are the ones where I talk about my grandmother, and my great grandmother, and just my ancestors in general. You know, it's easy - and necessary, in a lot of ways - to talk about the hardships and the trauma, and what maybe they didn't have access to, or didn't know. But what I loved was being able to explore what they did know, and what they passed down that wasn't trauma. The generational joy that they gave me, the ways to see the world. Writing about my grandmother, and how she traveled the world working for this family - but really retained her sense of self, right? She wasn't going to buy into any stereotypical images of who she should be as a caretaker for a prominent white family. She was very much herself, and taught me how to reinvent myself over and over again. So those were the stories I'm grateful to have written, that I had the chance to write.

Overall, what do you hope readers take away from your book? 

I hope that by reading my story, they will be able to turn inward and unpack their own story, and begin to think about, or figure out, what joy feels like in their own bodies. And, you know, begin to work at accessing it when they need it to counter the grief - or, you know, not even to counter, but to allow that joy to live alongside all the other emotions that they have. So, if people are doing that kind of work as they're processing my essays, then I think my job is done.

Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts is the author of Black Joy: Stories of Resistance, Resilience, and Restoration, out now on Gallery Books. 


51% is a national production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio. It’s produced by Jesse King. Our executive producer is Dr. Alan Chartock, and our theme is “Lolita” by the Albany-based artist Girl Blue.

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."