Two hundred years ago, a child was born into chattel slavery. She grew up to become a liberator. Abolitionist. Diviner. Healer. Nurse. Naturalist. Freedom fighter. Military raid leader. Spy. Scout. Suffragist. Daughter. Sister. Wife. Mother. Aunt. Friend. National Icon. This is the legacy of Harriet Tubman (1822-1913), born Araminta Ross, called Minty in her youth, and heralded as Moses in her extraordinary adult years of emancipatory action.
Harriet Tubman’s bicentennial birthday comes at a time when our nation and the world exist at a crossroads. Indeed, Isabel Wilkerson, the award-winning author of Caste and The Warmth of Other Suns, reminded us on social media that 2022 is a “turning point” in terms of the equally matched number of years in the United States—246 to be exact—between the practice of slavery (1619 to 1865) and the practice of democracy as an independent nation (1776 to 2022). Facing the uncertainties of climate crises and pandemics, wrestling over racial and political divides, reckoning with the “Me Too” response to sexual violence, and rethinking inclusive education, we are poised to move in different directions: to teeter backwards into the stranglehold of what the late bell hooks warned as “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” or to propel forward towards an anti-racist feminist future built on a firmer foundation of “justice for all.”
Tubman, who was once described by biographer Milton C. Sernett as a “litmus test” for diversity and inclusion, is an apt historical symbol for our current age—perhaps best represented when she won a popularity contest to place an historic woman on U.S. currency back in 2015. A redesigned $20 bearing her likeness on the front is set to rollout by or before 2030.
As I wrote in my book When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination: “Let us hope that, when Harriet Tubman is finally on our $20, we will have built a nation truly based in freedom, a freedom she never took for granted but forced the issue through self-emancipation and the emancipation of others.” Celebrating her bicentennial today is a reminder of this promise and her role as a catalyst for positive social change. She is the historical example we should follow as her narrative is one that must constantly be revived and rewritten.