100 Years Later: The Harriet Tubman Symposium

We don’t know the exact date when the great and powerful Harriet Tubman (ca. 1820-1913) came into this temporal world, but we do know when she left it. One hundred years ago on this day, Harriet Tubman exhaled her final breath and spoke her last words to those at her side: “I go away to prepare a place for you, and where I am ye may be also.”

Another great legend had entered this world just one month earlier: Rosa Parks, who was recently memorialized as the first African American woman with a monument in the Capitol Rotunda. A century ago, one legend was born just before another one died.

And so it is, in this milestone year of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, that I organized with the help of my colleagues and friends at the University at Albany Women’s Studies Department the Harriet Tubman: A Legacy of Resistance symposium. How often do centennials come along?

It was a busy weekend, a nerve-wracking weekend, in which we battled a sudden March winter storm and I suffered a stubborn cold that would not go away. Despite everything, I heard Tubman urge me on: “Keep going!” And, thankfully, I didn’t need her urging at gunpoint. Our ancestral mother needed us to remember her come hell, snow or ice!

More significantly, all those who committed to take part in this momentous occasion made it through the snow and ice.  Gathering in Albany on March 8, International Women’s Day, we would not be daunted. Besides, didn’t Tubman’s band of fugitives deal with much much worse?

What an honor it was to remember Harriet Tubman: her life, her legacy, her symbolism.

Vivien Ng, our department chair, reminded the audience that, as much as Tubman is a celebrated figure in our culture, she still remains invisible.  Where, she asked, was Harriet Tubman in PBS’s recently televised series, The Abolitionists? Tubman, who collaborated with men such as Frederick Douglass and John Brown–both of whom were featured–did not even get a mention!

How does this contribute to our representations (or misrepresentations) of Harriet Tubman? This was the subject of the first panel, moderated by rhetorician Tamika Carey of the University at Albany, in which I delivered a paper on “Between History and Fantasy: Harriet Tubman in the Artistic and Popular Imaginary.”  Music composer Nkeiru Okoye, who composed and penned the folk opera, Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom, followed up with a challenge to think of the woman behind the icon, behind the myth–whether in our art and popular culture or in our musical traditions. Okoye specifically shared with the audience how her opera challenged the musical conventions that confine Tubman to Negro spirituals.

Other presenters situated Tubman in the larger context of women’s histories–whether in relation to other resilient rebel leaders such as Nanny of the Maroons in Jamaica, as explored by Mildred Smith-Chang (author of the memoir The Mask is Off) or in relation to other black female fugitives, specifically those residing on the U.S./Canadian border, as examined by historian Daniel J. Broyld of the University of Pittsburgh, Johnstown. Broyld further invited the audience to think of Tubman as more than an “American” hero, redefining her as a transnational subject since she had resided in neighboring Canada for most of a decade when she and other African Americans fled the United States in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made this country unsafe for both enslaved and free blacks.

A highlight of this panel was Syracuse associate professor Vivian M. May’s paper, “Under-Theorized and Under-Taught: Re-examining Harriet Tubman’s Place in Women’s Studies,” which revealed that Tubman is significantly missing from the field of women’s studies.  If a PBS series can’t recognize Tubman’s contributions to the antislavery movement, what does it mean to erase her from much of the curriculum in women’s studies? May specifically challenged us to complicate her history, to view her beyond simple “strong black womanhood” stereotypes and to especially reclaim her ties to the women’s rights movement, for which Tubman was an ardent supporter and champion.

Throughout the day, the conversation around Tubman grew richer and more complex. Especially provocative was a panel moderated by Barbara McCaskill of the University of Georgia on Tubman’s legacy in the criminalization of black women’s resistance.  Literary historian Andrea N. Williams of the Ohio State University raised the specter of Tubman’s single status, despite her marriage to two men, and how productive she remained during her single years–and yet single black women in the 19th century existed outside the law and were thus criminalized in their status as well as in their resistance to the system of slavery.  Talitha LeFlouria of Florida Atlantic University explored the importance of Tubman’s modeling of resistance to oppressive systems, as it would later impact on the resistance strategies of black women entrapped in the Convict Lease System during the post-Civil War years in the South.

Most important was the conversation panel, “What Would Harriet Tubman Do? A Legacy of Resistance and Activism,” featuring such renowned black feminists as moderator Paula Giddings, author of When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America; Barbara Smith, founding member of Combahee River Collective and Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press; and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, editor of the anthology Words of Fire and author of numerous works documenting the history and contemporary expressions of black feminism.  Engaging the audience in provocative questions and comments–from what would Harriet Tubman do in response to the rampant violence in African American communities to her reaction to the existence of a black president–the panelists seemed unanimous: Tubman would be appalled at the former and demanding more race consciousness from the latter.

The first day closed with an evening performance from American Opera Projects of excerpts from Okoye’s Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom.  Lead soprano Sumayya Ali, who later revealed to the audience that she drew on her feminist and womanist impressions to channel Tubman in this role, blew us away with her big, impressive voice. We witnessed in this performance the transformation of a girl into a woman into a leader: “I am Moses, the Liberator: Be free or die!”

After such a full and rich day, our Saturday event was more playful, beginning with a local bus tour (guided by the Underground Railroad Project of the Capital Region) of the places where Tubman passed here in Albany and Troy, then participating in hands-on workshops. An interactive music pedagogy workshop, which began with spirituals sung by local singer MaryNell Morgan, was led by Allison Upshaw, who incorporated a “Singing Quilt” education project to engage audiences and expose them to the knowledge, quilting and spiritual traditions of Tubman and other fugitives using the Underground Railroad.  A final workshop by historian Kaye Wise Whitehead of University of Maryland at Loyola, summed up the themes of the symposium and implored us all to use our “critical imaginations” to not just think about “what would Harriet do,” but “What would Harriet Tubman say? What would she want to leave behind?”

We wrapped up with a student tribute as different black and Latina sorority organizations at the University at Albany performed a step routine, representing the precision, discipline, solidarity and community that Tubman most likely required of those she rescued from slavery and those she nurtured and collaborated with in sustaining a community of free people.

Harriet Tubman’s legacy of resistance: To remember, to struggle, to defy the constant erasure and to create community.

One hundred years later, we’re still walking in her footsteps.

The symposium papers will be featured in a forthcoming special issue of Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism.

Top image from Flickr user Caitlin_and_Kara under license from Creative Commons 2.0


Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.