Synopses & Reviews
Harriet Tubman is one of Americaandrsquo;s most beloved historical figures, revered alongside luminaries including Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History
tells the fascinating story of Tubmanandrsquo;s life as an American icon. The distinguished historian Milton C. Sernett compares the larger-than-life symbolic Tubman with the actual andldquo;historicalandrdquo; Tubman. He does so not to diminish Tubmanandrsquo;s achievements but rather to explore the interplay of history and myth in our national consciousness. Analyzing how the Tubman icon has changed over time, Sernett shows that the various constructions of the andldquo;Black Mosesandrdquo; reveal as much about their creators as they do about Tubman herself.
Three biographies of Harriet Tubman were published within months of each other in 2003andndash;04; they were the first book-length studies of the andldquo;Queen of the Underground Railroadandrdquo; to appear in almost sixty years. Sernett examines the accuracy and reception of these three books as well as two earlier biographies first published in 1869 and 1943. He finds that the three recent studies come closer to capturing the andldquo;realandrdquo; Tubman than did the earlier two. Arguing that the mythical Tubman is most clearly enshrined in stories told to and written for children, Sernett scrutinizes visual and textual representations of andldquo;Aunt Harrietandrdquo; in childrenandrsquo;s literature. He looks at how Tubman has been portrayed in film, painting, music, and theater; in her Maryland birthplace; in Auburn, New York, where she lived out her final years; and in the naming of schools, streets, and other public venues. He also investigates how the legendary Tubman was embraced and represented by different groups during her lifetime and at her death in 1913. Ultimately, Sernett contends that Harriet Tubman may be Americaandrsquo;s most malleable and resilient icon.
andldquo;In this brilliant study, Milton C. Sernett peels back layers of memory regarding both real and imagined events to reveal the fascinating interplay of cultural, political, and social forces that have contributed to Harriet Tubmanandrsquo;s near-mythic status. With graceful prose and nuanced analysis, he describes the literary and artistic productions that have shaped our understanding of Tubman over the past one hundred and fifty years: productions that reflect an ever-evolving process of memory and mythmaking by generations of Americans in pursuit of meaningful cultural and historical icons.andrdquo;andmdash;Kate Clifford Larson, author of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero
andldquo;The product of painstaking research, Milton C. Sernettandrsquo;s book offers a comprehensive description and analysis of the processes by which the historical former slave woman became an iconic figure with shifting and contested significance for multiple audiences during her own long life and into the twenty-first century. In addition to presenting valuable facts for admirers and historians of Harriet Tubman, Milton C. Sernett uses her example to pose vital questions about the functions, varieties, and tenacity of heroic mythmaking in the lives of communities and nations.andrdquo;andmdash;Jean M. Humez, author of Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories
andldquo;Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History is an interesting and important book. It forces us to examine the real life of one of our most enduring American heroes. With painstaking research, Sernett illustrates how the mythical Tubman has become so deeply entrenched in American culture. According to Sernett, the idolized image of Tubman will continue to live on, as various interests will continue to use her as their own icon for various struggles. Nevertheless, as he demonstrates in this fascinating book, the real Harriet Tubman was an incredible woman in her own right.andrdquo;
andldquo;Sernett has crafted a meticulous study of Harriet Ross Tubman and the scholarship, oral histories, and cultural records that have both fueled and challenged her status as an American icon, patriot, and resister. . . . The power of the work lies in its rigorous close readings of the contexts, cultural battles, and historical moments that informed the writerly efforts of abolitionists such as Sarah Bradford, journalists like the Auburn resident Earl Conrad, educators like Bessie Cooper Noble, and the artists and writers whose creative genius facilitated important public encounters with Tubmanandrsquo;s legacy. Sernettandrsquo;s keen attention to the evolution of identity politics and the changing manifestations of racial uplift enables a stirring and informative rereading of Tubmanandrsquo;s multifaceted story, and a heightened awareness of the racialized and gendered components of the often sentimentalized and politicized andlsquo;Americanandrsquo; story.andrdquo;
andldquo;Sernett has successfully tilled the territory that historical memory calls us to enter. Not only has he recovered a significant portion of our past with regard to an important figure, but also he has opened the window on how myths are made, why they do not easily die, and in the end why we must embrace and own the truth about our past. Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History is an admirable achievement for a historian, and we should be grateful to Sernett for this valuable work.andrdquo;
andldquo;Sernettandrsquo;s Harriet Tubman is a rich, informative, well-documented study by a noted historian of the African American experience who has written about antislavery activities and African American religion as well as a significant work on the Great Migration.andrdquo;
andldquo;Sernettandrsquo;s richly textured study is not foremost a biography but an analysis of the interplay of individual and collective history-making, myth-making, and the cultural memories surrounding Tubman. [A]n impressively researched and fascinating book . . . [that] makes significant contributions to deeper understandings of the place of memory in American history and political culture widely.andrdquo;
An exploration of the way history, meaning, and memory have interacted in the process of transforming Harriet Tubman into an American icon and a figure of inspiration like Abraham Lincoln or Fredrick Douglass.
About the Author
Milton C. Sernett is Professor Emeritus of African American Studies and History at Syracuse University. Among his books are African American Religious History: A Documentary Witness and Bound for the Promised Land: African American Religion and the Great Migration, both also published by Duke University Press, and North Star Country: Upstate New York and the Crusade for African American Freedom.
Table of Contents
1. andldquo;Mintyandrdquo; 11
2. andldquo;Moses the Delivererandrdquo; 41
3. andldquo;General Tubmanandrdquo; 73
4. Sarah Bradfordandrsquo;s Harriet Tubman 105
5. Saint, Seer, and Suffragist 131
6. The Apotheosis of andldquo;Aunt Harrietandrdquo; 165
7. Earl Conrad and the Book That Almost Wasnandrsquo;t 195
8. andldquo;Spirits Risingandrdquo; 225
9. Pride of Place 255
10. Historians Have Their Say 293