Memory  /  Q&A

There Is Room for Our Black Heroes To Be Human

“Night Flyer” expands Harriet Tubman’s legacy to include her family, community and “eco-spiritual worldview.”

Harriet Tubman's legacy looms large and remains woven deeply into the fabric of American society. However, there is a particular narrative about the formerly enslaved abolitionist that is troubling. Nicknamed "Moses" during her quest to save enslaved people via the Underground Railroad, tales told about Tubman often depict her as mythical or even — as in the case of the 2019 biopic Harriet supernatural. She was a powerful woman who did near-impossible things, but in scholarship and pop culture alike, Tubman often seems godlike or invincible.

Historian and author Tiya Miles seeks to dispel these herculean myths about Tubman in her new book, Night Flyer: Harriet Tubman and the Faith Dreams of a Free People. Referred to as a “faith biography” by Miles, Night Flyer explores Tubman’s spirituality and her ecological relationship to the lands that helped her mission more than 170 years ago. Miles’ new work serves as a disparate lens into the sui generis life of Tubman.

Night Flyer is the first title Penguin Press has released in its Significations series, curated and edited by scholar and literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The author credited her fellow Harvard professor for giving her the opportunity to write in depth about a woman whom she’s long admired. In a conversation with The Emancipator, Miles argued that we should not view Tubman as a lone heroic figure or America’s Robin Hood — but as a real woman of depth and faith.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Keishel Williams: At the start of the book, you say that understanding Harriet Tubman as a real person means studying her beliefs and ideas in a cultural context. What do you want people to learn from her life?

Tiya Miles: There are so many things I want people to learn from her life. The younger me would encounter Harriet Tubman, especially during Black History Month, in my class or in the media, and she was always sort of a flat figure. She stood for freedom, of course, and she stood for courage. But there was never any discussion that I recall from my childhood and growing up years of her inner life, of her consciousness, the ways in which she confronted problems and sorted through them and made choices. 

Fast-forward to when the Harriet Tubman movie [Harriet] came out. I enjoyed it. My heart soared at the end when she went into the house, and she rescued her parents and brought them up north to Canada. And yet, I felt like something was desperately missing. And it was the same thing that had been desperately missing from my growing up years. And that was a sense of who Harriet Tubman was on the inside. [The film was] a major contribution, and at the same time, I think one can view it almost like a superhero kind of representation. We saw Harriet Tubman as somebody who was always very active, very much in motion, and doing death-defying feats that could not be attempted by anyone else. That is not an untrue understanding of Harriet Tubman, but it’s a limited understanding. 

So the main thing I want people to take away from this book — the main thing that I took away working on the project — is a sense of Harriet Tubman as a real, live woman. A real, live Black woman.  She was multidimensional and was always, in a very real way, at risk. She was always at risk. I think we can forget this when we just see pictures of her plastered around at certain times of the year.

And that was what came across very well in the book: the fact that she was always at risk. The book’s focus seems to be on Tubman’s “eco-spiritual worldview” of nature and faith. Can you explain what “eco-spirituality” is and why you decided to focus on this thread in Tubman’s life? 

So, in using the term “eco-spiritual worldview” and putting ecological sense next to the spiritual sense to frame the book, what I meant to indicate was that Harriet Tubman’s understanding of and a connection with the natural world was linked to an understanding of and a connection with God. These two senses came together to influence the choices she made and shaped the ways that she moved in the world. 

When I started this project, what I really was interested in, and what I thought I would focus on, was actually the environmental piece. I wanted to write an environmental study of Harriet Tubman. I had an interest in enslaved people and their environmental concepts, and Harriet Tubman was at the center of this. Over the years, I continued to do my research and publish on histories of slavery and kept notes about little environmental facets that came up, especially in the slave narratives where people talked about how features of the natural world either aided them or sometimes endangered them in their daily lives and in their attempts to escape.  

When I had the opportunity to write a biography for Skip Gates’ new biographical series, I thought, “OK, Harriet Tubman and the environment.” This was my chance. I was ready to go. But when I went back to the primary sources, what I saw was not that the environmental piece was wrong, but that the spiritual piece was the most dominant aspect of her life. She wasn’t just the lone figure who was running through the woods to save people. And so, I brought these two pieces together into what I call this “eco-spiritual worldview” that I attribute to Harriet Tubman.

Your book Wild Girls: How the Outdoors Shaped the Women Who Challenged a Nation centered on girls and women in nature, including Tubman. Would you say “Wild Girls” is in conversation with Night Flyer

Yes, absolutely. With “Wild Girls,” Harriet Tubman was the heart of that book. She was where I began. And I didn't know when I was working on “Wild Girls” that I’d be doing a biography of Tubman. But I did know that Harriet Tubman spent much of her formative years outdoors — not by choice, but by force — as an enslaved girl, and used that time to grow, learn, test herself and train herself. I knew that was going to be the centerpiece to “Wild Girls.” Once I had Tubman in view, through that lens of girls outdoors, I started noticing the same pattern in the lives of 19th century girls from totally different contexts and regions. So, Tubman’s life gave me the argument for “Wild Girls” that I saw in the lives of these other girls. But “Wild Girls” is a short book, and there was much more I wanted to say, especially related to Harriet Tubman maturing.

And you were able to do that in Night Flyer

Yeah, absolutely.  

You included a few “holy women” as Tubman’s contemporaries in this biography of her life. Tell us why you chose these particular women to “balance out the voices” we hear in this book.

One of the things I recognized about Harriet Tubman in the primary sources, which are biographies based on interviews with her, is that there was sort of an isolating effect, sort of a narrow lens. The purpose of those biographies was really to say she’s this very special, very unusual person who did something that never could have been imagined. And these sources, while very important, were just not enough for me to feel satisfied that I understood Harriet Tubman in the kind of fullness that I was searching for.

So I decided at that point to employ a strategy that I used in a book I wrote called “All That She Carried,” which is about a family of enslaved Black women in South Carolina, about whom very little had been written. For that book, I learned that if I looked for adjacent Black women and sources, people and materials that were related to them, but maybe not directly connected to them, I could understand more about these women through almost a crowdsourcing approach. The crowd is all the other Black women. I think I described this as a chorus at one point. In Night Flyer, I did the same thing when I realized these biographies are just not cutting it. I needed to access the Black female chorus. And in the case of Harriet Tubman, because of what we already discussed about the centrality of her religious faith, it seemed natural that it was going to be Black women of the faith.

You wrote: “Harriet Tubman was a member of a regional and racial culture, not a lone ranger.” Why was that important to note? 

This goes in two directions. One goes back to what I already said a few times in the conversation, which is that I think too often we see Harriet Tubman as this lone, heroic figure. I think that going with that picture could be detrimental to our ability in our present moment to confront these huge problems that we face and to think about them in imaginative ways, like Harriet Tubman did. If we think that we have to be alone in fighting against these terrible forces, who would dare to take the first step? But if we realize that even Harriet Tubman was not alone, I think we can have a little more confidence in knowing that we don't step out alone either. We can step out as a part of a community, we can step out with the foundation of a tradition beneath us, and we can step out with a sense of faith that there are others who are going to be looking out for us.

Now for Harriet Tubman, her faith was mostly placed in God. It was a spiritual thing. But I think she also had faith in other people. She had to trust so many other people for anything that she undertook to actually have a positive outcome. And I think that example is really helpful for us. So that’s one way that I think this is important. I think it’s instructive when we realize that there are limitations to the sense of a lone heroic figure.

But the other way is that I actually don’t believe it was true that Harriet Tubman stood alone. She did not stand alone. She was a part of a family. She was a part of a community. She was a part of a network of Black women, and of Black people. But this book’s focus is on Black women who believed in something, and they believed it together. And that belief they shared really helped them get through some of the darkest times in their lives.

One of the things that really captured me in this book was that Tubman truly believed she was on a mission from God to free the enslaved. She had such strong faith. Was there any point in your research or writing when you thought that she was a religious zealot?

Tubman was next level, but I think that the intensity of her faith was not singular. The other Black women that I talked about in the book — who viewed themselves to have received the Holy Ghost and who believed that they heard from God, walked with God, and worked on behalf of God — also had incredibly strong convictions about their faith. And they did all kinds of dangerous things as well in response to this feeling that they had a calling to do God’s work.

The specificity of Tubman’s answer to the call had to do with the physical alliances that she made with people seeking their freedom. The way she carried out that call was a little different, but the depth of the faith and her willingness to do all kinds of things, which might seem bizarre to us, in response to the faith was not only her. There were Black women among the ones I discussed in the book who left their children behind to travel and preach the gospel, who went down into the South knowing that they could be enslaved, who said, “Oh, really, they want to jail me because I’m preaching God's word? And, by the way, God’s word to me means liberation of the enslaved. Let them come. Let’s see if they can take me.” I mean, that is far out there. However, she was not alone in the depth of her faith.

I don’t have that same kind of religious conviction or that same kind of faith. When I was reading some of these accounts, I would think, “OK, Harriet, are we really going to go that direction and go into the swamp because you sense that God is telling you to? I don’t think that’s the best idea.” But according to the sources, it worked out. Tubman might put her success rate at 98% for the story she told us [about herself]. But later in her life, she did have times when she was going on her inner antenna, and some things didn’t work out. But this wasn’t in the phase of her Underground Railroad work, which was really where she was responding to what she felt was God leading her.

There was one major mention of Tubman being robbed and beaten when she was older. But throughout the book, I wondered if there weren’t any stories about her struggles as a woman often in the woods alone, trying to save and even lead men, who may not have taken kindly to being ordered around by a woman — a petite woman, at that.

I'm so glad that you mentioned her stature because these are the kinds of things I think we forget. We forget about what it is to be an actual embodied person, a female-bodied person in the world, and especially in the world of the 1840s and 1850s when you actually don't even own your own body. The question that you raised is so important, and it's one that I tried to gesture toward in Night Flyer at one point. Just mentioning her gender and what that could have meant, it is frightening to imagine the extreme exposure that she faced. What we don’t have are accounts or stories of any kind of physical attack or sexual attack on Tubman during those journeys. 

Now, that does not mean that it didn’t happen. I can’t imagine this mission would have been able to be 100% free of that, not just risk, but attempt. It’s hard to believe it because we’re talking about people, and we’re talking about sexual dynamics and long periods of exposure. She was also sometimes unconscious when she was out there, due to the seizures that she had resulting from what scholars attribute now to a temporal lobe epilepsy that affected her after a terrible injury she endured as a teen. 

So that was a long way around the bend to say that I don’t have an answer to your question. The sources don’t tell us, but I can’t see how she would not have been vulnerable to that kind of danger or those kinds of assaults. Now, of course, there’s much more to any experience than we have recorded. But my best sense of this is that even though she was highly vulnerable as a female-bodied person, and even though I don’t think she could have escaped some kind of sexual attack or attempt during these years and also her early years in slavery, my sense is, from the materials we have that overall, the men who were in her parties respected her and respected her leadership.

What lessons can modern-day racial justice advocates and warriors learn from Tubman’s life? 

State of spirit matters. The way in which a person enters that work in terms of: Where’s their mind? Where’s their heart? Where’s their soul? That's all going to affect their perception of the problem, their development of the solutions and the ways in which they determine the best course of action. State of spirit absolutely matters. And the natural world matters. It matters where people are in terms of their sense of identity and their sense of well-being.

After working on what can be seen as an emotionally heavy book like this, how was your mental health? Did you have to do much self-care after being in that world for some time? 

An important takeaway from Harriet Tubman’s life as I recounted in Night Flyer for activists and the social justice movement is exactly this question of self-care. Because this is an area where Harriet Tubman had a very different idea than I think many people do today. She was not caring for herself. She was caring for other people for the greatest portion of her life. And she’s willing to do that to her own detriment. And she even suggested that her life really wasn’t of value, beyond the work that God had called her to do. I admire her conviction, and yet I think her life was intrinsically of value. She deserved to have that life. She deserved to be free from all that suffering. She deserved to experience joy. And I think these are aspects that she was not attending to. And so I think activists today could consider this aspect of Tubman’s life and think about where they come down on this. Did Tubman get it right? Do they agree with her approach? Is there a middle ground? 

I personally am not so in favor of that term (self-care) because I think it could be interpreted in ways that move into selfishness, which we don’t want. But I do think everyone deserves good health and well-being. I felt so much hope in writing this book, so when I finished, I actually felt a sense of exuberance. I felt like I had been uplifted by having the opportunity to understand Harriet Tubman’s story in a different way. And I felt like her story could serve as a model for us — and she was. Not in the lone hero kind of way, but in the way in which she represents the deep caretaking capacities that exist within all of us and that we will need to carry on.

This article first appeared on The Emancipator and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.