Sunday, April 17, 2011

Passover and Harriet Tubman, The Black Moses

Passover will arrive in just under 24 hours (where I live), and time is of the essence. There are many places you can go to find funky, alternative seders and traditions. I wish I had time to give a significant list of links. But since I don't, I'm going to focus on Moses. Specifically, the Black Moses. You know, the woman.

Harriet Tubman is known in African-American lore as "The Black Moses". She was born Araminta "Minty" Ross, to enslaved parents Harriet Green and Ben Ross, in or around 1820, in or near Maryland from my understanding. Records of the births of the enslaved were not always well kept, and so the exactly location and time seems unclear from what I've been able to gather.

As an adolescent, Tubman was on an errand when she encountered another African held by a different family. The man's field enforcer was trying to torture him and insisted Harriet help hold the man down. She refused, and the African tried to run away. The field enforcer threw a two pound weight at the African man, but instead it hit Harriet in the forehead.

This injury did two things. Firstly, it offered her some measure of eventual reprieve from forced labor, because she would often have "spells", or episodes where she would fall down and be unable even to respond to others. As a result, Tubman worked on a schedule she had some control over, because she could not be forced to work the exact schedule as the other African hostages. Secondly, this injury was the starting point where Tubman started to have many visions and dreams of a religious nature that sustained her throughout her life.

Tubman later married John Tubman and changed both her surname and her first name from Araminta to Harriet. A series of events led to her decision to escape, and on September 17, 1849, Tubman and two of her brothers escaped the prison farm where they had been held. For reasons that may have included one of her brothers' new status as a father, they returned within a month's time. But Tubman escaped again soon after.

In December of 1850, however, Tubman received news that her niece, as well as her nieces' children, would be transferred between slavers. Harriet Tubman did the unthinkable - she went back to Maryland and got her niece. She returned again in the springtime for other family memebers. She continued to return into hostile territory for the next eleven years. Legend says she motivated terrified escapees who wanted to return by using a gun and telling them they would either live free or die then. Harriet Tubman never lost a "passenger" on the underground railroad. She went on to work as a civil war spy, and continued to work for the liberation and betterment of her people throughout her life.

Some say the measure of a person's effectiveness is how agitated their enemies are. By the time she finished her work of helping fellow Africans escape enslavement, some estimates put the bounty on Tubman's head at around $40, 000 (although this is an overinflated estimate, and some believe it reflected a combined total of various bounties). A relative comparison in today's US dollars, adjusted for inflation, can be found by clicking here. While the estimates at the linked site vary widely, they are all over a million dollars. Harriet Tubman was five feet tall.

Many parallels have been made in the civil rights movement linking the basic story of enslavement, exodus and redemption in the Torah and the Civil Rights movement. I urge you to read them, and I wish I had time to give more information about them. Since time is of the essence, however, I will point out that both Harriet and Moses had a handicap (I know, I'm being ableist, just trust that I have a point I'm trying to make that's very subversive and universalist).

A Midrash recounts that as an infant, Moses once took the crown off of Pharaoh's head and placed it on his own. Some believed this meant the child was destined to take the Pharaoh's power and wanted to kill the child. Finally, the adults present decided to "test" baby Moses by placing a plate of gold and a plate of glowing coals before him. If Moses reached for the gold, this meant his earlier action had been done with intelligence, and he should be killed for it. However, if Moses reached for the coals, it would be proof that Moses had been acting as a simple child attracted to shiny objects. The two were placed before him, and Moses immediately reached for the gold. However, the angel Gabriel (which is considered by some to be the angel of communication and associated with the throat chakra and voice), moved Moses's hand towards the coal an put it in his mouth. From this, Moses became one who "speak(s) with faltering" (Exodus 6:30).

I found the parallel of disability between Moses and Harriet striking, and I'm sure there's deep significance that can be found it. So I encourage you to learn more about Harriet Tubman and share her story at your seder table this year. Let us remember not just deeds done long ago, but let us rejoice in examples of deeds done recently enough for us to believe in. Let us remember, in the face of oppression and abuse around the world today, the fire of love and courage that Harriet Tubman held. Let us rejoice in ancient as well as modern and contemporary examples of this love and the courage that stems from it, so that we know the voice of hope for freedom and wholeness which has cried out from us since the moment of the first oppression we experienced in our lives and which will always wail within us, is a voice and a hope that gets results if we follow it.

Pesach Sameach!


  1. you are invited to follow my blog

  2. Thanks Steve. Your blog seems to be evangelical Xtian though, that's not exactly my style if you catch my drift.

  3. Ok, so this Pesach, I finally got around to discussing Harriet at my family's seder table! I even made photo copies of "Traditional Black Music Spirituals", collected by Jerry Silverman. I used the song, "Go Down Moses" on p. 18-19 because it fit with the Passover theme (except the verse about letting us all be free in Christ), and because it featured a photo of Harriet Tubman with other Africans she had helped escape enslavement.