This Black History Month I’m Grateful for Harriet Tubman
"Every great dream begins
with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the
patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world."
— Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman spent several years of her life as one of the most
wanted people in America. Her exploits as a conductor on the Underground
Railroad were legendary even during her lifetime. She is reported to have made
more than a dozen successful return trips to the South after her own escape
from slavery. Ultimately, Tubman was reported to have led more than 300 slaves
to freedom in the North. Her reputation
was so substantial that at one point there was a $40 000 reward for her capture.
The reputation that Tubman garnered helped convince slaves
throughout the country that there were more possibilities for escape than had
been previously foreseen. Many escaped slaves reported that they were inspired
to escape since they only needed to leave the South once while Tubman did it
time after time. Clearly, Harriet Tubman was not just the most famous conductor
of the Underground Railroad. She was also a symbol for possibility.
Tubman’s contributions extend beyond those for which she is
most noted. She was an important speaker
and public figure in the national abolition movement and had important
relationships with Frederick Douglass and John Brown, both of whom expressed
their highest admiration for Tubman. Tubman even helped Brown recruit men to
help in his ill-fated attack on Harpers Ferry.
During the Civil War, Tubman
held many roles including as a spy and military adjutant, thoroughly
disregarding the notion of gendered boundaries in the process. This Moses for her people worked tirelessly
to free enslaved individuals and an enslaved people.
Today I am grateful for Harriet Tubman. You should be too.
This Black History Month I’m Grateful for W.E.B. DuBois
“The problem of the
twentieth century is the problem of the color line.”
This quote is from “The Souls of Black Folk”, one of the most
important articulations of the possibilities and struggles of Black people in
America. In it, DuBois coined the term “double consciousness”, creating a
concept that retains currency in Black communities a century later.
W.E.B. DuBois provided us so many contributions that he’s
nearly impossible to characterize. He was a prolific author, renowned educator,
social activist, political philosopher and prominent anti-colonialist. In his
remarkably long life, DuBois served as a bridge between the worlds of Frederick
Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.
Early in his career, DuBois helped Blacks to shift away from
Booker T. Washington’s focus on schooling to learn skilled trades toward a
focus on academic knowledge based education. His encouragement of artistic and cultural
accomplishment combined with his concept of a “Talented Tenth”* made DuBois a primary
inspiration for the Harlem Renaissance.
While it seems odd now, Dubois died as something of a social
outcast. This was largely because his politics were considered too radical by
mainstream Black Americans. By the early 1960s, he’d become convinced that Pan-Africanism
was the best way for American Blacks to respond to racial oppression in the U. S.
In much of his writing and thinking,
DuBois anticipated and inspired the Black Power movement.
DuBois is best known today as one of the founders of the
NAACP and Niagara Movement. As important as those developments have been, they
are only a small part of W.E.B. DuBois’ many legacies.
Today I am grateful for W.E.B. DuBois. You should be too.
*- the idea that it is the responsibility of the best and
brightest Blacks to work toward the improvement of their race, lifting others as they go
This Black History Month I’m Grateful for David Walker
". . .they want us for their slaves, and think nothing
of murdering us. . ."
I know less about David Walker than any other person I’ll
write about this month. That’s in part because he died in 1830 and largely
because there are very few historical records concerning him. We know that he
was a free Black man who died at only 35 and under mysterious circumstances.
Even now, Walker’s contributions to the US are subtle and have generally been
condemned when noticed. That’s because David Walker was scary!
Walker’s main contribution to American life was his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World.
The Appeal was the clearest possible
call for a violent revolt overthrowing slavery. It is not coincidental that Nat
Turner’s revolt followed soon after the Appeal nor is it coincidental that the
rights of free Blacks were limited in response to Walker.
While all these
individual elements were largely negative, Walker forced everyone in the
country to recognize the possibility that there would never be a strictly political
solution to slavery. Instead, while America crafted political agreements like
the Missouri Compromise that divided the country into slave and free regions,
some in the country were willing to force America toward change.
In some important senses, Walker’s descendants include
Turner, John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. All these men
eventually concluded that only violence would end the scourge of slavery in
America. Unlike those others, however, Walker remains marginalized in American
history. His early, prophetic vision of America’s future process did not come
to pass exactly as he imagined. Fortunately, much of his vision of America’s possibility
Today I am grateful for David Walker. You should be too.
This Black History Month I’m Grateful for Frederick Douglass
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
The accomplishments of Frederick Douglass are so numerous they seem mythological to many of us today. For a Black person, born a slave in the first half of the 19th century, to have become so accomplished was literally unimaginable until Douglass did it.
A few highlights:
Douglass freed himself after illegally learning to read; worked as an abolitionist and suffragist; published The North Star and other newspapers; wrote multiple autobiographies; expanded benefits for Black soldiers in the Civil War; received nominations for Vice-President and President.
His autobiographies captivated the country and, for many Northerners, provided the first clear demonstration that Blacks could be the intellectual equal of Whites. Douglass was the first Black person to garner a truly national reputation, the nearly universal respect of Whites, and to be treated as an equal by an American President.
In fact, I consider Douglass to be the original president of Black America. He was the first person who could be said to have represented the most urgent interests of Blacks to the whole country.
It’s nearly impossible to conceive even now but Frederick Douglass was born as a slave and died as one of the most important people in the world.
Today, I am grateful for Frederick Douglass. You should be too.