I am filing this week’s column from a hotel room off Delaware’s Route 13 in Dover, as I finish up a weeklong field trip along the Harriet Tubman Byway, a self-guided 125-mile 30-stop driving tour of the American hero's life, with free audio (harriettubmanbyway.org). I started in Cambridge, Maryland and visited every single site along the Eastern Shore and listened to all gazillion hours of audio, and here I am. I’ve got the sour stomach of too many road meals—the Olive Garden really is the gift that keeps on giving—and the fatigue that sets in from binging on cable TV. I don’t have such riches at home, so my defenses were down when a Honey Boo Boo marathon was on as I ducked in for a break from history touring this afternoon. Turns out pilgrimages are exhausting.
Harriet Tubman is the original badass. An enslaved black woman in a time when any of those three identities rendered a person less than human, she was superhuman. She bravely freed herself from slavery, and then she did the truly astounding thing of returning to slave territory, risking her freedom and her life—and it was going to be one or the other for her—to liberate hundreds of others. The tour took me through so many places Tubman herself had been. There was the farm where she was forced to work, even when she was just an 8-year-old girl with the measles. There was the village store where at 13 she put herself between an overseer and an enslaved man who were fighting, catching a two-pound weight in the head in her effort to protect a fellow enslaved person.
Other parts of the tour were less specific—this is the landscape she likely moved her fugitives through, this is the Quaker meetinghouse where she may have found safe haven, this is near where she probably helped lead her brothers out of slavery and all the way north to Canada West. It’s a history necessarily based largely on conjecture, because everything related to the Underground Railroad had to be kept secret. And Tubman was good at keeping secrets—and forcing others to do the same. When one of her “packages” wanted to turn back halfway to Canada, she put her pistol in his face and gave him the choice of finishing the escape or getting shot right there. If he was too weak to continue the journey, he’d be too weak to keep her secrets, and “dead Negros tell no tales.” He kept moving, all the way to freedom. Like I said, total badass, and absolutely uncompromising.
I was pretty much in Tubman-worship mode all week, but that didn’t keep me from noticing the signs that the legacy of slavery hasn’t exactly vanished from the Eastern Shore. There were the subtle signs, such as the Dorchester County Visitor Center guide’s thinly veiled advice to stay out of the “bad” parts of town as she showed me how to get to the Tubman museum in downtown Cambridge. It took about three minutes of being lost to figure out that she means what lots of white people mean when they say “bad part of town”: the place where Black folks live. And then there were the less subtle signs, like the house draped in Confederate flags on the way to Choptank Landing, just outside of Preston, Maryland. I felt like stopping to knock on that door and informing the homeowners that they don’t need to worry—white supremacy is still safe in America, so no need to get all shouty about it—but I got back in the car and continued the tour.
That’s the thing about history, though. It reminds me how recently we got here. I mean, Tubman’s grandmother was forcibly brought to the United States by way of the Middle Passage. Her grandmother. And Tubman herself didn’t die until 1913, the year Rosa Parks was born. As a friend pointed out to me, his grandmother was born in 1910, and for her, the Civil War was a more recent past than World War II is to our generation. Like I said, we just got here, and this history is hardly resolved.
I got the best sense of that from one of the final tracks of the excellent audio tour that guided me the whole way. The narrator asked if I would have aided fugitives along the Underground Railroad if I’d been alive back then. It’s not so easy to decide, she said. Many free black and enslaved people refused to help, turning in freedom seekers for reward money, to gain favor with slave owners, or for their own personal reasons. Many white people helped people along the Underground Railroad in spite of great personal risks. Everybody’s complicated, she said, and I thought to myself, this audio tour has officially gone off the rails trying to make everybody morally equivalent at the last minute. The rhetoric of reconciliation, that we are all Americans who shared in a complicated world of suffering, rang false given not only what I know about history and see in the present, but was undermined by the rest of the tour that highlighted the heartwrenching struggles of so many to get themselves free. History’s complicated, and so is heritage, and at this point in the week, I’m just plain tired out. Time for a trip to the casino up the street—I’ll think about how the whole place is basically a giant poor tax some other time.