Black Women’s Histories: A Conversation with Kate Clifford Larson

Black Women’s Histories, a conversation series profiling different feminist scholars engaging Black women’s histories and narratives during Black and Women’s History Months (February and March, respectively), continues with Kate Clifford Larson, the primary biographer of Harriet Tubman, with her 2003 Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman—Portrait of an American Hero, and a consultant for the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical ParksShe is also the author of The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln and the forthcoming Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter. This week, which marks the death of Harriet Tubman on March 10, 1913, I am pleased to present this conversation with Larson on the legacy of Tubman.

How did you become interested in Harriet Tubman?

Way back in 1993, I decided to leave a career in business and return to school to do women’s history. A professor that I knew from the 1970s was still teaching, and the only graduate course that he was teaching at the time was a course on African American history. That subject wasn’t on my radar. I didn’t have an overriding interest in it, but I loved that teacher so much, I took his course. And in two weeks, I knew I wanted to study African American history. It just hit me, and then at the same time, my daughter was in second grade, and she was reading biographies of great Americans, and one of them was on Tubman. I’m reading along with her and thinking, “Wow! This is such an amazing woman.” So I went to the library looking for an adult biography of her, and there was nothing there except the Earl Conrad one from 1943 and Sarah Bradford’s 19th-century biography. And lots of children’s books. So, I went to my professors and said, “This is really weird. She’s so famous and amazing. How come there is nothing out there?” They all couldn’t believe it either. Everybody assumed there was a recent biography on Tubman, but that wasn’t the case.

So this was before the Tubman biographies by Jean Humez and Catherine Clinton?

Catherine Clinton didn’t start her work on Tubman until much later, and I didn’t know Jean Humez at the time, who was working on Tubman around the same time that I was. So I started working on Tubman for my master’s, and then my professor thought the project was too big for a master’s thesis and suggested I go on for my PhD and focus my dissertation on Tubman. So, that’s what I did, and I was really lucky that I ended up at the University of New Hampshire because they had all these Southern historians who knew how to do research into Southern archives. Everyone said to me I would never find anything on Tubman because she was illiterate, she didn’t leave any records behind, but my professors said that wasn’t true. There is so much material in archives that you can find. And the abolitionists in New England wrote about her all the time. They met her, they quoted her, and she’s in all their newspapers and their journals. So that made it even better. I was hooked on Tubman from the moment I started researching her. And I still research her every single day. It’s a passion.

Now that you’ve done the research, there are still all these ideas about Tubman, and the special issue that I guest edited for Meridians really did much to recover the woman behind the icon.

I’m so glad you did that!  I loved every word from that issue, and I thought it was truly dynamic.

Thank you! It was such an exhaustive process, and I’m glad we have this issue. What would you say is the biggest misconception about Tubman?

There are so many! I guess you could say that she’s mysterious and unknowable. But there is a juvenile impression of her that persists, and it drives me crazy. And I know it bothers other people too. She is often presented as if she is not really an adult woman who had love and passion, and pain and sorrow, and great joy and a sense of humor. We don’t get to see that real person, that real human being. We often get a caricature of her. And it’s particularly painful for me because I’ve been working on exhibits—specifically for the Harriet Tubman State Park Visitor Center—and the design firm that’s been hired got off on the wrong foot by reading only the juvenile literature on Tubman. So, we often get incredibly juvenile texts. And the woman who is presented in these texts is not Harriet Tubman. We get simplistic narratives saying, “Harriet Tubman was brave and courageous!” And yes, she was brave and courageous, but she was also filled with fears, and she had flaws. A juvenile perspective elevates her to this weird status where she doesn’t seem like a real person.

Absolutely! I know the way she’s often viewed as a superwoman means that her vulnerabilities and her genius get overlooked. But I do have to thank you because biographies like yours help us to see Tubman as fully human.

Yes, and the work needs to continue.

Beyond just historical nonfiction, do you think we’ll get Tubman’s life story through other media, like film?

I’m glad to tell you that Viola Davis is set to star in an HBO film on Harriet Tubman, based on my biography. And I’m very happy because, since it came out, my book has been optioned six times to be adapted to film, and no one has been able to pull off a film on Tubman. And perhaps it’s because people just look at her as a juvenile subject, so she’s not a real woman, but now Davis is doing this project with HBO and Dreamworks.

I’m excited we will finally have a movie. She definitely deserves her own movie, apart from that bit part she had in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter! She needs an update from Cicely Tyson’s turn in A Woman Called Moses.

Cicely Tyson is my dream actress, but the movie she appeared in as Tubman was horrible! It was not historically accurate and based on too many stereotypes.

But a movie could definitely raise interest in supporting the development of the Harriet Tubman national park.

I agree, but you’re not going to get a push from the National Park Services. It took a lot of people all over the country, but definitely in Maryland and New York, pushing and pushing for the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, and not stopping. Local groups, churches, tourism groups, just a ton of people. This is my own view, but if we did not have an African American president right now, I don’t think this would have gone through.

Since Harriet Tubman will be the first African American woman to have her own national park, this is quite the success story. What are your own thoughts about being a public historian working on projects like this?

As a public historian, I’m proud that my work is out there and being used to create parks and byways and museum exhibits and that people are having more dialogues about it. And certainly Humez, Clinton, and Milton Sernett have gotten people, especially in academia, to pay more attention to Tubman. So I’m very proud of my work because of that. And meeting you and other scholars is incredible to me. Because as a graduate student, I remember going to conferences, and there would always be panels on Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, and other great Black women historical figures. But Tubman was never one of them, but now she is being recognized academically, and how fabulous is that? But we still need more reflection and more critical analysis. We’re still not there. There’s something about Tubman and her story that causes people to shut down [intellectually].

What is it about Tubman? I mean, I’ve had conversations with others, where someone will say, “I’m tired of slavery movies,” which I’m not, by the way. I think we need more of those stories.

I’m with you on that one.

And yet, what I think people are saying is, they don’t want to be confronted by all that pain and dehumanization, which is what we get with 12 Years a Slave. So, then others will say, “Give me the triumphant tale!” Harriet Tubman’s story is all about triumph. But when I discuss further what others mean by the triumphant story on slavery, they want Nat Turner or Toussaint L’Ouverture during the Haitian Revolution. But of all those revolutionary figures, Harriet Tubman lived to tell the tale, and she lived to be 91 years old! We seem to prefer the revolutionary figures who died young.

And they were men!

And they were men…there you have it.

I think that has a lot to do with it. I know there’s a film being made on Frederick Douglass, which is wonderful, and that’s going to be on the big screen. Who knows if Tubman will ever get the big screen treatment? But HBO is definitely a start.

Is her story too unbelievable even though it’s based in history?

Maybe it’s the way people are introduced to her, because if it’s through these juvenile stories, then it is unbelievable. But maybe Viola Davis can bring out her full humanity and a more mature persona. I’m hopeful that she can, and I’m hoping HBO will do a great story.


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.