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She Came to Slay
The Incredible Life of Harriet Tubman
Historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar, author of "She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman," discusses the incredible, courageous life of the freedom fighter who continues to inspire us today.
The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman
Erica Armstrong Dunbar -- professor of history at Rutgers University and bestselling author of Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge -- discusses her latest project about Harriet Tubman, She Came to Slay. Gorgeously illustrated to visually and narratively tell the story of Tubman's incredible life, She Came to Slay is powerful mix of pop culture and scholarship.
A Conversation with Erica Armstrong Dunbar
History in Five: What initially drew you to Harriet Tubman as a subject? Have you always planned to write about Tubman and her life?
Erica Armstrong Dunbar: I spent many years writing and teaching about fugitives, more specifically, women. As a historian, I know that the majority of people who risked everything to flee from enslavement were young men, and this fact always captivated me. I later came to understand that many enslaved women who lived on small farms or large plantations were pregnant, nursing, or raising small children during their young adult years. This made the decision to escape a very difficult one. Forced to choose between a risky escape with a small crying infant or to leave a child behind, many enslaved mothers decided to not gamble on escape. Harriet Tubman did not have to make the same choice. She had to leave behind her family (a family she would return to rescue) but she had no children at the time of her escape. When the news broke that the film Harriet would arrive in theaters this fall, I became interested in writing a new and accessible book about Tubman. This book moves beyond what Americans think they know about Tubman, and does so in a way that is fresh and contemporary. Tubman was more than the recognizable image of the elderly head-covered woman. She was an activist, a military hero, a wife, a mother. She was a boss.
Hin5: What new insights did you glean from your research into Tubman’s life?
EAD: I think the thing that is most striking about Tubman’s life is that she managed to help between 60-70 members of her family and friends who lived on the Eastern Shore of Maryland to escape. She took more than a dozen trips to Maryland and never lost one runaway. Not one. Everyone who put themselves in her care made it to a northern state and/or Canada. Tubman was in her late twenties when she escaped and for nearly a decade, she committed herself to ending slavery—one person at a time.
Hin5: Most Americans know Harriet Tubman as a fearless leader on the Underground Railroad, but she was also a suffragist, abolitionist, advocate for the aged, and a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War. How would you characterize her legacy and what we could we—as activists, feminists and citizens—learn from her life and work?
EAD: We are living through an intensely volatile moment, a moment in time when we are asking fundamental questions about America and dreams denied. The hashtags of #blacklivesmatter and #metoo remind Americans that we are still living with the legacy of slavery and women’s inequality. Tubman fought to tear down the institutions that discounted her because of her race and gender. She liberated enslaved people and was the first woman to lead a military expedition during the Civil War. When slavery came to an end, she dedicated her life to the women’s suffrage movement and to helping disadvantaged people. Tubman was telling folks that Black lives mattered and that women’s equality was a priority back in the nineteenth century. She helped to set the table for activists of the 21st century.
Hin5: Harriet Tubman struggled with headaches and seizures beginning at an early age that lasted throughout her life. How did this private, internal struggle resonate with the very public advocacies she made for others that were suffering?
EAD: We don’t often think of Tubman as a person who lived with a physical disability, but she did. Her life was impaired by headaches and seizures that would on occasion, send her into an unconscious state. As a young person, she refused the demand of an overseer to help detain and capture an enslaved man. His fury was unleashed in the form of a two-pound weight that struck her in the head and fractured her skull. She lived with chronic pain. Tubman also lived with the vulnerability of knowing that she could slip into an unconscious state at any moment. When the Civil War was over, Tubman worked to help those who suffered the most with physical limitations and illness—elderly Black men and women. She would make it her life’s mission to create a place where the elderly could live and eventually die with dignity. As an elderly woman herself, she helped to create such an institution in Auburn, New York.
Hin5: This biography includes illustrations, photos, and new ways of approaching Tubman’s life. What inspired you to construct a biography in this manner?
EAD: When I first discussed this project with my editor, we both agreed that it was time for a new and fresh take on Tubman. There hasn’t been an adult biography published about Tubman in some time and we decided that I should write something that was accessible and modern. This biography asks us to see Tubman as a bold and fiery activist. She Came to Slay includes a beautiful set of illustrations commissioned by the talented artist Monica Ahanonu that allow us to see Harriet Tubman as a young child, as an associate to Frederick Douglass, as a wife to her second husband Nelson Davis, and as an activist who carried a gun and wasn’t afraid to use it. Harriet Tubman Davis needs to be remembered as a multidimensional woman and I hope this book allows readers to see her as such.
Hin5: If you had the chance to sit down with Tubman, what is one thing you would want to know?
EAD: I have so many questions for Mrs. Harriet Tubman Davis. I realize that some of my questions would be inappropriate because they deal with sensitive situations (I really want to know how she prevented herself from punching her first husband’s lights out when she returned for him after her escape and found out that he had taken a new wife). I would probably ask her if she had any regrets. My follow up question would ask her thoughts about America in the 21st century.
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