In the recent movie “Harriet,” the renowned Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman is depicted offering a simple explanation for her astounding success leading slaves north to freedom.
“I went down south and brought them back,” she states. “God showed me the way.”
The movie captures beautifully the role that faith played in Tubman’s impressive life. If you haven’t yet seen it, Black History Month might be an appropriate time to treat yourself to this film. Beyond Tubman’s trust in God to order her steps, viewers also see the yearning for freedom that characterizes not only the black experience in America but indeed the human experience writ large.
We all desire the opportunity to live free. And here in the U.S.A., black history is an important aspect of our larger national story.
Freedom ultimately flourishes best when people from diverse backgrounds unite together in common cause to fight for it, defend it and protect it. For too much of America’s history, obviously, many white Americans either overtly participated in or tacitly supported the oppression of the black race. At the same time, however, the “Harriett” movie accurately shows the assistance lent to Tubman and escaping slaves by white Quakers and other white abolitionists. The risks they took as whites in the Underground Railroad enterprise were considerably less than those taken by blacks, whose very lives hung in the balance, but nonetheless these allies showed courage in standing up for justice and truth.
Frederick Douglass once touted the value of brotherhood and sisterhood among all people when he said, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”
In our own generation, the question is often asked whether we as a nation -- after all the years of slavery and discrimination -- are nowadays doing enough to recognize the roles of black Americans in our history. And certainly, it would seem to be high time for meaningful symbolism such as the proposed printing of a U.S. currency bill bearing the likeness of a heroic figure such as Tubman. Let’s get that done.
Even more important than such symbolism, however, is preserving the spirit that motivated these freedom fighters.
Once she had escaped to the North, Tubman could have simply counted her blessings to have survived her dangerous journey. She could have settled back and enjoyed her own newfound life as a free woman. Instead, she risked her life to return time after time to the South to rescue others from bondage. Historians say she made approximately 13 such trips (to say nothing of her roles as a cook, nurse, scout and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War).
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” President Ronald Reagan once said. “We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where (people) were free.”
That’s part of the lesson of Black History Month. And that’s part of the lesson of America’s story as a nation.