Kanye West made headlines across the nation recently when he asked a seemingly reasonable question: “Why you gotta keep reminding us about slavery?” A self-made man, West echoed another self-made man from a century earlier. Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute, famously did not wish to dwell on the past, either.
But those who don’t wish to dwell on the past ought not to spout history. And that is where West made his big mistake. To defend his assertion that black people made a choice not to flee slavery, West attributed to Harriet Tubman the statement: “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”
I have spent the past year retracing the steps of the Underground Railroad’s most famous conductor from her birthplace in Maryland to her grave in New York. The journey has been a humbling one, particularly since the person who traveled it first was so very humble.
Northern abolitionists recruited Tubman to regale audiences with tales of her harrowing midnight raids into the murderous South. She laid the story on thick. She was an escape artist, and like all artists enjoyed recounting her accomplishments. Like the time she took live chickens to the market so she could release them to distract the men hunting her. Or the songs she sang to communicate with crouching runaways while she brazenly strolled the road, daring bounty hunters to pick her out of a crowd. She had a good voice, after all, one Kanye West would undoubtedly appreciate — honey poured over butter.
But for all her boasting, Tubman never exaggerated her accomplishments. In that respect alone, she was no Kanye West.
Our knowledge of Harriet Tubman is limited by the fact that she never learned to read or write. Her illiteracy may be attributable partly to the brain injury she suffered protecting a child younger than herself from a whipping around age 13. The overseer who crushed her skull gave her a permanent disability.
Tubman recounted her tales until she was an old woman in a rocking chair in Upstate New York. From the first interviews in 1854 to her last recorded reminiscences more than 50 years later, Tubman told the same facts in the same order again and again. She was remarkably consistent, as people tend to be when telling the truth about traumatic events they experienced personally. American generals, statesmen and reformers corroborated Tubman’s compact record.
One might say Harriet Tubman was addicted to truth-telling. She wanted other Americans to know exactly what happened in those fateful years between 1831 and 1861 when abolitionists rewrote the story of our nation. Her extraordinary accomplishments required no exaggeration to make listeners gasp.
Tubman’s incredible story involved no fewer than 13 harrowing trips to the South to rescue members of her family too scared to attempt the flight to freedom alone, as well as strangers she found on the way. Her sisters were mostly older. All four were sold or died before she could help them. Her brothers were mostly younger. She brought all four north.
Tubman made no claims about how many people she saved. Historians estimate around 70. But the four she was unable to save must have rested heavily on her spirit. She stopped going back only after the Civil War broke out. Then she volunteered as a scout and helped organize a raid that liberated 750 enslaved South Carolinians.
Never once in recounting this tale did Tubman ever imply that those millions who did not make it out, including her four sisters, chose their tragic fate.
West’s butchering of Tubman’s record does a disservice to his fans and followers. It distorts crucial parts of our past for political purposes, cheapening what should be a national treasure. If West wishes to lecture on the subject, he should first enroll in History 101. There he will have to dwell some on the personal sacrifice that people like Harriet Tubman embraced to make America truly the land of the free.
Elizabeth Cobbs is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.