Restoring Our Voice: Black Feminists in Conversation with the Spirit of Harriet
Remembering the black ancestral past in no easy task. Given much of the documentation we have of the enslaved exists primarily for the purpose of assessing the value of state property, not human beings, constructing whole lives out of such abstract records is an uphill battle. For descendants of enslaved people, imagination is key to restoring what was stolen. Accompanying this restorative imagination is the ability to choose who we remember and what we remember them for. Harriet Tubman is one individual not just remembered, but enshrined as one of the most significant black radical figures of all time. An exhaustive amount of research has been done to preserve her legacy, yet even in her case, certain details of her life receive primacy over others. Why is this the case, and specifically, why does her domestic or “private” life, tend to get overlooked?
While Harriet is the entry point for many to understanding the history of enslavement, there is often a tendency to smooth out the edges of her past to fit a particular narrative. This is partly due to the fact that, where slavery is concerned, we are taught the about the evils of the plantation but we are not taught about the emergence of the ontology of race and how gender was involved in its development. Nor are we taught about patriarchy and the debasement of black women that occurred within slave communities. There are several historical accounts that indicate Harriet herself suffered abuse at the hands of her husband John. Though Harriet was not known to discuss the marital phase of her life very often, to not address the little we do know about her domestic life pre-escape is, again, a choice. Acknowledging the complexities of their relationship would be to reorient ourselves with regards to the intersection of race and gender on the plantation, and grapple with the fact that “slave” was not the all encompassing marker of identity we tend to think of it as - even within this categorization lay the pitfalls of internal hierarchies.
Harriet married John around 1844 and they lived together for about five years. When they married, Harriet was still enslaved while John was a freedman. His emancipation however did not protect him from the ever present threat of enslavement. In the biography “Moses, the Monster, and Miss Anne,” by Professor Carole Marks, Marks provides several insights into the limited “freedoms” made available to John through his status. She reveals that even though he had steady employment and a support network of friends and family in his home of Dorchester County, he nevertheless had reason to fear recapture, as “even in Maryland, vagrant free blacks could be bound or sold for renewable terms by a magistrate’s court.” We know that when Harriet first escaped John refused to go with her – did he believe he had too much to lose in Maryland, or that the risk of repossession was too great? Regardless of the reasoning, their union would not have been any less complicated had Harriet decided to stay. While families consisting of both freedmen and the enslaved were common, Harriet’s bondage meant that she could be sold at any time, effectively rendering their marriage invalid. On top of this their potential children were in danger as well due to the legal doctrine known as Partus sequitur ventrem, which held that the status of a child followed that of the mother. Harriet’s children, therefore, would have been born slaves, and the legal bond between them and their parents would have been tenuous at best. Harriet’s limited mobility even within her own marriage was a direct consequence of the plantations’ demand for a steady supply of new laborers that slave owners sought to generate through sadistic laws and other forms of coercion designed to maintain control over the reproductive capabilities of the enslaved at all costs. Harriet did not have children, perhaps because she feared they would be sold and forced to endure the pain of separation, perhaps for a reason unknown to her biographers, yet even the childless slave woman was not guaranteed reprieve from this reproductive violence. As Marks states, “It was common practice if after two years of marriage a slave wife did not become pregnant to replace her. Solomon Northop reported in his narrative for example, of Critty, a slave ‘forced to take a second husband when her first marriage did not produce children,’ and then ‘sold to a trader when it became apparent that her unwillingness or infertility could not be overcome.’… The Tubmans lived together, childless, for five years before Harriet escaped.” What did Harriet imagine would happen to her when, after two years of marriage, she had bore no children? Did she suspect immediately that she would be taken away? Did she have any faith in John that he would protect her? Did she fear her master would take matters into his own hands and violate her? And what about John? He married her knowing the risk but did he eventually come to regret this decision? The fact that he took another, free woman, as a wife after Harriet escaped indicates that he may have. Does it matter that we know precisely what was going through their minds in these exact moments? It is clear from the facts we do have that their marriage was marked by the pervasive terror of captivity.
The violence of the passage across the Atlantic ensured that the idea “family” in the Western European sense could never materialize amongst black people free or not. The enslaved were un-gendered through the process of becoming property, and thus “male” and “female,” were not categories applicable to the slave class. Thus, with no mothers or fathers, children ceased to exist, and the captured became unmoored from one another. Gender dissipated on the slave ship but could also be re-invoked on the plantation in order to forcibly extract additional labor from the slave population. Enslaved women were indistinguishable from men when they were needed to work in the fields, for example, but in the slave quarters and the master’s bedroom they were transformed into “women” – not the women that received the comfort and luxuries of care that their white counterparts received, but women in the sense that their bodies were subject to the sexual and reproductive demands of the master or the husband. This is something to consider when grappling with the nature of Harriet and John’s relationship. And when we remember as well that John threatened to sell Harriet himself if she tried to escape, we must ask ourselves to what extent he internalized the very same colonial logic that denied his own humanity and the validity of his marriage to begin with? In an article written on the subject of Harriet’s abuse, Black Women’s Blueprint executive Farah Tanis describes this behavior as having been “generated from the same rationale as chattel slavery.” It is indicative of a desire to seek some type of security within the patriarchy at the expense of black women, a security he is nevertheless locked out of by virtue of his blackness. Blackness in the colony was perceived as a danger, as criminality, as disease, etc. – and was positioned in direct opposition to the civility and rationality associated with the white world. John was understood as the very threat the white slaveholding class sought refuge from in the first place, and so any attempt at gaining access to that world was doomed to failure. Yet, this behavior is something we see reflected in our communities to this day. Men, typically cishet men, seek to take control of their lives through the abuse of women, trans and queer people, leaving us traumatized and battered, while they remain suffocating under the weight of their own unaddressed trauma with nothing to show for their cruelty. That someone can be both an abuser and a victim of oppressive power structures is something survivors of domestic violence must grapple with everyday. Like so many women after her, Harriet returned to John in spite of his abuse out of empathy for him – she knew his suffering as she had lived it herself. She returned knowing that John was not safe where he was despite being free man, in an attempt to show him what true freedom could look like. She left him understanding that he was a threat to her own safety.
In her article, Tanis notes the disappearance of the boundary between the private and public in the lives of the enslaved. This observation points to yet another of example of the state’s positioning of blackness as necessarily outside of humanity in order to extend our fungibility. Should enslaved people become an individuals, and the state were forced to make allowances for the acquisition of property, wealth, land, and other signifiers of worth under capitalism for the slave class, the nation’s entire economic model would have collapsed. The interiority of the enslaved, thus, was the subject of constant scrutiny, and therefore true interiority was never really allowed. What we got instead was the “unknown.” The songs, stories, languages, dialects and dreams of the enslaved were regarded with deep suspicion and fear by the master, and were frequent targets of state surveillance and violent disruption as a result. Harriet and John’s union lies within this nebulous, threatening space that exists between the public and private. It was here that Harriet saw the intertwining of the state and family, the permeation of anti-blackness in the home, and the reenactment of oppression by the oppressed. She witnessed the role-play of abuse, in which John, playing the character of “master,” threatened to sell her in retaliation for the crime of escape. She saw the birth of the master/slave complex that continues to haunt our communities to this day. This breakdown between the private/public dichotomy reveals so much to us about modern black life and gendered power dynamics, yet it is rarely spoken of in depth outside of black feminist circles. However, those genuinely seeking liberation cannot ignore the experiences of black women, trans, and queer people contained within the realm of the domestic. We have done Harriet’s legacy a service by honoring her as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and as a radical. But we need also honor her as a survivor. To do so is to make a promise to ourselves that today’s survivors won’t get lost in the struggle for liberation.