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Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories (Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography) Hardcover – January 1, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, Harriet Tubman famously boasted that she could say what most conductors couldn't: "I never run my train off the track and I never lost a passenger." The quote fits with the popular image of Tubman as the courageous, inspired "Moses of Her People," yet Humez, a professor of women's studies and scholar of African-American spiritual autobiography, argues that the edifice of Tubman iconography has concealed the woman herself. Humez has assembled a trove of primary source documents-letters, diaries, memorials, speeches, articles, meeting minutes and testimonies-that create a more intimate portrait of Tubman. But instead of interpreting the rich materials she has collected, Humez offers a biography of Tubman and then includes a scholarly article asserting that since Tubman was illiterate, and her stories and correspondence have been recorded by others, "such texts cannot be read at face value" and must be understood to have undergone at least minimal changes from the author's original statements. Although Humez's prose lacks narrative flair, she aptly places Tubman in a broad historical context, documenting her relations to John Brown, Sojourner Truth, Abraham Lincoln, Frederic Douglass, Northern abolitionists and the nascent women's movement. The book is at its best in the last two primary-source sections. Through Tubman's documented words and the observations of others, "Aunt Harriet" emerges as an even more charismatic figure than American history has allowed: profoundly spiritual, irreverent, witty, wise, impoverished and ultimately neglected by the Union she defended.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
"I see Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories as the most important book on Tubman in the last fifty years."—William L. Andrews
"Imagine Harriet Tubman, whose spirit is so large, without the means to tell her story as autobiography in the usual sense. She sings or prays or speaks in public, but what about the silent articulation of pain and struggle that becomes available through this source. . . . In bringing together the many voices that serve as Tubman's surrogate, Humez does something for Tubman that Tubman was never in a position to do for herself."—Joanne Braxton, College of William and Mary
"Humez has compiled what she calls Tubman's "core stories," accounts of her life Tubman told regularly in her public appearances, and descriptions written by those who interacted with her. Presented as a chronology of her life, these materials paint a far more vivid portrait than any biographer's account. The reader gains not just glimpses of Tubman, but sees how she confounded even those admirers who still could not comprehend a black woman who behaved like the bravest of men. Read with the care Humez's introduction to the documentary section of her book prescribes, the collection of Tubman sources she has assembled provide the basis for a far fuller and more complex portrait than has hitherto been available"—New York Times Book Review
"Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories may be the most comprehensive book on Tubman to date. Humez follows Tubman through slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and her final years, with careful attention to the facts and minimal embellishment. Humez discusses Tubman's role as a storyteller, and in subsequent chapters, pays close attention to Tubman's words as they were presented by her early biographers and in her letters to family and friends. Humez's book is extremely well researched, and her writing is both incisive and accessible, making it an excellent resource for students as well as for the general reader."—Black Issues Book Review
"…the most analytic and interpretive treatment…ideal for scholarly audiences, though it will please any interested reader….an invaluable resource for understanding the real Harriet Tubman."—Library Journal
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Top Customer Reviews
This book is a treasure. Eminently readable, impossible to put down, totally absorbing, this book will satisfy meticulous scholars and the general public. What a great way to learn U.S. history! Great quotes, critical appraisal of the work of earlier historians, new documentation, wonderfully illuminating photographs. A feast for the curious mind and eye.
I have always wanted to know more about Harriet Tubman and as soon as I heard this book was out I dived into it. Harriet Tubman's life has been the subject of several biographers in the past, but in this work Humez convincingly argues that Harriet Tubman, who could not read or write, was able to produce a "self-authored life story" by carefully choosing the writers she collaborated with and exercising control about what stories to tell and how to tell them. This results in a fascinating and kaleidoscopic interpretation of Harriet Tubman's life, as seen through different authors and through Harriet Tubman herself.
In the first section, "The Life," I learned about the salient facts of Harriet Tubman's life: her years as a slave in Maryland, seeing two of her sisters sold and carried away in a chain-gang, her successful escape from slavery in 1849, when she was probably 29 years old, her contacts with the anti-slavery movement in the North, the mutual admiration of Harriet Tubman and John Brown who referred to her using the masculine pronoum ("Harriet Tubman hooked on his whole team at once. He is the most of a man, naturally, that I ever met with"). It is also about the clandestine trips she made to Maryland to rescue her extended family and others, her military and nursing work during the civil war and her settling in Auburn, New York, in poverty, taking care of old and sick people of color and children-- the John Brown Hall project, as she called it.
Interesting quotes from her dictated letters reveal details that throw light on her views on other issues, such as women's rights. For instance, in telling about the successful Combahee River raid in South Carolina, in which she worked with Col. James Montgomery and a band of 300 black soldiers, she states after her dress was shred that "...I made up my mind then I would never wear a long dress on another expedition of the kind, but would have a bloomer as soon as I could get it..."
It is in the second part, "The Life Stories," that Humez makes the case that Harriet Tubman's gifts as a story-teller, singer, and performer and her reputation as an African-American celebrity ensured that her experiences as a slave and her deep spirituality would be preserved. Here, through a discussion on the politics of research, the dynamics between a researcher and her/his subject, and the cultural and social context that influences much of those dynamics, I felt Harriet Tubman's presence and resourcefulness vividly, towering above those who tried to capture her complex story and interpret her life according to their values and the racial views of their culture.
The third part, "Stories and Sayings," offers a hypothetical version of Tubman's "autobiography" culled from every individual life history story Humez was able to locate from the earlier works. While all the stories and sayings are revealing and offer significant insights my favorite part was the "Stories of Clever Exploits and Tricks," probably because I always wondered how she actually carried out her rescue missions. In this section the intelligence, courage, and humor of Harriet Tubman shines through, like in the story "Avoiding Capture by Pretending to Read." It says: " At another time when she heard men talking about her, she pretended to read a book which she carried. One man remarked. `This can't be the woman. The one we want can't read or write.' Harriet devoutly hoped this book was right side up" (Tatlock, 1939a).
The final section, "Documents" is a gift of primary source materials for future researchers and anybody interested in pursuing an in-depth study of Harriet Tubman's life.
Read this book. See for yourself how illuminating the past and looking at history with a fresh eye can instill hope. This book is yes, about Harriet Tubman, but more fundamentally, it is a book about courage, dignity, persistence, and solidarity in incredibly harsh circumstances. What a gift for us all in these troubled times.
This book begins with a traditional biography, presenting the bare bones of Tubman's life. The section called "Stories and Sayings" puts meat on those bones, breathing life into someone who has nearly been lost to us in legend. It's a fascinating concept, and I think it works.
Equally amazing is the Documents section, reflecting 10 years of research and which will be required reading for any future Tubman scholars because, as Humez herself says, "...my retelling of her life story cannot be definitive." Highly recommended.
Curator, AfroAmericanHeritage dot com