They were on the bank of a stream of some width, and apparently a deep and rapid one. The men were afraid to cross; there was no bridge and no boat; but like her great pattern, she went forward into the waters, and the men not knowing what else to do, followed…
They called her Moses. Born Araminta Ross in the early 19th century, into the holds of slavery, Harriet Tubman would come to be known as a fearless liberator. She is the most widely recognized conductor of the Underground Railroad and is responsible for the emancipation of hundreds of enslaved Africans in the United States between 1849, the year of her own escape, and 1861, the beginning of the American Civil War. In 2013, one hundred years after her death, the significance of her life’s work, and the symbolic content associated with her name and image, cannot be overemphasized.
In November 2012, I drove through the open gates of a cemetery in Auburn, New York. Uneven rows of grey tombstones were pinned to the dull green, undulating land. I followed the instructions I had received beforehand and drove, as directly as I could toward a mammoth pine tree. Squares of fluttering color came into focus as flags, planted around the granite tombstone by visitors. I could walk right up to the tombstone and touch the words “To the memory of…” as I stood upon the portion of earth beneath which the mortal remains of Harriet Tubman Davis were laid to rest.
Slightly off to the side of the grave, the crisp wind whipped the red, black and green of the African Liberation Flag – the colors I have now come to expect at the gravesites of those who had lived and died fighting for the recognition of the full humanity of Africans in the Diaspora. The stars and stripes flanked the tombstone. The thick roots of the pine started at the broad base of the tree and pressed into the earth until they disappeared just beneath Harriet’s tombstone. The massive, blackened forms seemed to intentionally delve right into Harriet, for sustenance, and to provide a new corporeality for her towering presence.
Facing the physical evidence of the existence of Harriet Tubman also meant confronting the reality of the enslavement that she undermined – its proximity to the present, its indelible mark on the geographic and political landscape of the nation.
I found Harriet Tubman’s gravesite after visiting her former home and the home for the elderly that she founded and eventually also lived in. Closed to the public, the residence had been rebuilt after the structure that Tubman had actually lived in was lost in a fire. I had access only to the outside of the building, which was undergoing renovations at the time. The home for the elderly was open for viewing. It had also undergone major repairs by the A.M.E. Zion Church, after having been abandoned and almost entirely stripped during the Great Depression.