Friday, March 14, 2014

Bogus Tubman: “I freed thousands of slaves. I could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves.”

Harriet Tubman, as quoted (but without a citation) in

1993:  My soul looks back, 'less I forget:  a collection of quotations by people of color, ed. Dorothy Winbush Riley (New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 148.  My thanks to Quote Investigator Dr. Garson O'Toole for supplying this one in a note via email dated 18 March 2014.  Riley substitutes a comma for the first period, and gives a date of "c. 1865".  She died in 2012.

1999:  Africana: the encyclopedia of the African and African American experience, 1st ed., ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. & Anthony Appiah (New York:  Basic Civitas Books, 1999), 299 (“Free blacks in the United States,” by Alonford James Robinson, Jr.); and 2nd ed., ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. & Anthony Appiah (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2005), vol. 2, p. 710 (“Free blacks in the United States,” by Alonford James Robinson, Jr.).

Unfortunately, the attribution to Tubman is in all likelihood bogus, and for a number of reasons:

First, neither Riley nor Robinson cites a source.  What is more, neither of the indices to the two books listed in Robinson's little bibliography contains an entry for Tubman.
Second, the idea that Tubman freed “thousands” of slaves (for example the “several thousand” referred to in Economic co-operation among Negro Americans:  a social study made by Atlanta University under the patronage of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C., together with the Proceedings of the 12th Conference for the Study of the Negro Problems, held at Atlanta University, on Tuesday, May the 28th, 1907, ed. W. E. Burghardt Du Bois (Atlanta, GA:  The Atlanta University Press, 1907), 30, as quoted by Sernett (64), below) has been discredited by the professional Tubman scholarship of the early to mid-2000s, which questioned not “thousands”, but even the three hundred “first introduced” by Tubman contemporary and biographer Sarah H. Bradford (Sernett, 64 ff.).  Tubman specialists (and admirers) Drs. Jean H. Humez (“sixty-six to seventy-seven” (352 and elsewhere)), Kate Clifford Larson (“roughly seventy to eighty slaves, in addition to perhaps fifty or sixty more to whom she gave detailed instructions” (100)), and Milton C. Sernett (pp. 64 ff., 304, 309, 315, 317, 321-323, and so forth) agree in an estimate of approximately seventy, most of them relatives.
Third, the conditional clause (“If they had known they were slaves”) seems anachronistic, much better suited to a later and less overtly racist age, perhaps even (see “Fourth,” below) the mid to  late twentieth century.  Would it really have been possible for an antebellum slave (as distinguished from, say, a Jim-Crow-era African American) to have been unaware (or in denial) of the fact that she was a slave?  (An honest question, but one that, it seems to me, must be posed.  Needless to say, I am not the one to make an educated guess about the period of African American history into which such a "lived experience" or mentalit√© might most comfortably fit.)
Fourth, it makes no attempt to reproduce the dialect in which (if genuine) it would probably have been delivered, despite the fact that such attempts are present in the 19th-century sources (just for example those collected at Humez 195 ff. and 277 ff.).
Fifth, I, at least, have yet to identify a pre-1993 source that puts these words in Tubman’s mouth.  Humez thinks it could turn up in the juvenile literature of the twentieth century (note to Steve Perisho dated 13 March 2014), but even if it were to turn up (and I would love to hear of any findings), see numbers two and three above.
Sixth, the Tubman specialists I’ve written think it spurious.  Humez is skeptical:  “Certainly I never ran across such a claim in the early sources” (note sent via email, above, and quoted here with permission).  Larson is even more emphatic:

Harriet Tubman never said this. As you discovered . . . , there is no citation for this - it is made up.  It first starts appearing around 2000 (coincides with the Africana encyclopedia) and then every year it seems to be used with more frequency.  I am glad to know it did not sound right to you. I just don't get why people use this quote without questioning it. It doesn't sound like something Tubman would say. . . . I find it racist, frankly.  Don't you think every enslaved person knew they were slaves?  They certainly did.  It also diminishes the very real and complicated decision-making process that went into a freedom seeker's decision to flee if they could indeed do so. The quote does not reflect the very real anguish of enslaved people who did flee and left all their loved ones behind, and the pain experienced by those who were left behind.  Tubman understood those feelings and that decision process acutely, and she carried it deeply within her soul

(note to Steve Perisho dated 13 March 2014, and quoted here with permission).

  • Humez, Jean M.  Harriet Tubman:  the life and the life stories.  Wisconsin studies in autobiography series.  Madison, WI:  University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.
  • Larson, Kate Clifford.  Bound for the promised land:  Harriet Tubman, portrait of an American hero.  New York, NY:  Ballantine Books, 2004.
  • Luker, Ralph E.  "Pimpin' out Harriet Tubman."  History News Network, 13 February 2008.  I hadn't encountered this by the time I composed the post above, which I did so that there would be a debunking readily accessible via the Internet.  Undoubtedly this was because I was looking for debunkings of the statement as it had appeared in print in 1993.  Whereas Robin Morgan reproduced it on 2 February 2008 as follows:  "Let a statement by the magnificent Harriet Tubman stand as reply. When asked how she managed to save hundreds of enslaved African Americans via the Underground Railroad during the Civil War, she replied bitterly, 'I could have saved thousands—if only I’d been able to convince them they were slaves.'"
  • Popick, Barry.  The Big Apple.  21 April 2016.  This was published over two years after my post above, and cites it (as well as my Wikiquote modification), but cites also a page quoting Sernett (below) that I apparently missed at the time, as well as an undated one by Larson (above).
  • Sernett, Milton C.  Harriet Tubman:  myth, memory, and history.  Durham, NC:  Duke University Press, 2007.