Harriet Tubman's Sense of Self

February 11, 2019
Professor Todne Thomas
Professor Todne Thomas

Todne Thomas, Assistant Professor of African American Religions at HDS and Suzanne Young Murray Assistant Professor at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, delivered the following remarks at Morning Prayers in Harvard's Memorial Church on February 8, 2019.



Good Morning.

I’m honored to commune with you for today’s morning prayer. To set the scene—my son had just learned about slavery and expressed his sadness repeatedly that his ancestors were forced to live under such conditions. I wanted to teach him that, “no one is ever just one thing.” I wanted to find a way to shed light on the difference between being assigned a role, especially a disenfranchised one, versus living out a life. I decided to buy him a children’s book about Harriet Tubman. My son was in awe of Tubman’s story and rightfully so. It’s an amazing story. It’s filled with fugitivity, danger, rescue, secrecy, even espionage. But the legacy of Harriet Tubman is salted with a communal commitment.

Born Araminta Ross around 1820 in Dorcester County, Maryland, to Harriet Greene and Benjamin Ross, Tubman was of Asante ethnic origin. During her childhood as an enslaved girl, a plantation owner threw a weight at her head causing a life-long struggle with narcolepsy. She worked as a nurse-maid, domestic, and field laborer into her adult years before making the decision to “steal” herself for herself to escape sale to a southern chain-gang in 1849. It was in Philadelphia as a free woman that Araminta took her mother’s name Harriet. Yet, Harriet Tubman did not stop with herself. Tubman made 19 trips to rescue an estimated two to three hundred enslaved people, including many of her own relatives. She became the most effective and most notorious conductor of the Underground Railroad—a secret network of spaces that hid and hosted people who did not, could not, would not accept the designation of slave. Tubman, with her revolver in her hand, never lost a passenger. She established homes in Auburn, New York; and in Saint Catherines, Canada. She gave money, her own clothing, and her domestic space to help people in need. She returned to the South during the Civil War to work as a Union nurse and to collect information for the Union as a spy. She also spearheaded a Ferry Raid with Colonel James Montgomery and 150 African American soldiers to rescue over 700 enslaved people along the Combahee River. She was also a fierce advocate for women’s suffrage later in life and spent her latest years trying to open a hospital for elderly and infirmed freepeople in Auburn, New York.

According to her contemporary Sarah Bradford, Tubman was:

the future deliverer of hundreds of her people; the spy and scout of the Union armies; the devoted hospital nurse; the protector of hunted fugitives; the eloquent speaker in public meetings; the cunning eluder of pursuing man-hunters; the heaven guided pioneer through dangers seen and unseen; in short, as she has well been called, “The Moses of her People.” (19).

What a life! No one thing indeed; her impact was legion. The story of Harriet Tubman’s life work explodes the categorical confinement of “the enslaved” along with strictures of race, gender, class, and ableism. Yet, aside from the awe and narrative expansion that Tubman offers, my son posed questions that have stayed with me. Questions that are worth asking again. “Why would someone who liberated herself go back to the space in which she was enslaved to help someone else? Why would she risk it?” And the other questions pulsing underneath: What kind of person is she? Could I be that kind of person?

I’d like to return to a part of Tubman’s story that struck me most. Araminta Tubman took her mother’s name. She became Harriet when she became free. Herbert Gutman writes of the common practice on the part of enslaved people separated from their relatives to name their children after loved ones who were sold away. But Araminta was not sold away; she stole away. Araminta did not have any children. She had herself. I do not believe Araminta’s adoption of her mother’s name was just a commemoration of her mother’s life. Instead, I believe it was an embodied receipt for her mother’s freedom. Araminta’s choice to become Harriet was an intentional reminder that her family and her people were not yet free. It was a reminder that she had work to do. It was an intentional yoke of her self to another self. I would also assert that Araminta’s choice to adopt her mother’s name signposted a rich sense of personhood that we should meditate upon this morning. By renaming herself, Harriet Tubman carried her mother inside of herself. The kind of people who do what Harriet Tubman did are people who understand “self” not as one or as singular but as a part of many. They dream collective visions of the future. Harriet Tubman did not stop with herself. Harriet Tubman’s sense of self did not end with herself. Harriet Tubman’s sense of freedom did not end with herself. And I want us all to stop, pause, and question: who are we carrying with us or inside of us, in this moment, in our everyday walk through these halls? Who else can we bring along on the uneven road of life, and the even more treacherous path to freedom? Thank you.


Bradford, Sarah. Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People. Secaucus: The Citadel Press, 1869.

Gutman, Herbert. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom: 1750-1925. New York: Random House, 1976.

Hale, Nathan. The Underground Abductor. New York: Abrams, 2015.

Meltzer, Brad. I Am Harriet Tubman. New York: Penguin Random House, 2018.