Toni Cade Bambara mentions Harriet Tubman in her story titled "The War of the Wall." How and why is the reference to Tubman important?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Toni Cade Bambara’s story “The War of the Wall,” a young African-American woman from New York – a painter – has been given permission to paint a mural on the outside wall of a building in a small southern town. At first two of the children in the story are offended by the woman’s apparent presumption: she has come into their neighbor to paint some of her art on a wall that has long been used (for shade, for ball-playing, and for other purposes) by the local community. Yet despite the children’s objections, the painter continues with her project.

As the project nears completion, the children decide that they will deface the painting. However, before they have a chance to execute their plan, they (and the rest of the community) see the completed mural and cannot help but strongly admire it. They are particularly touched to find members of the community represented in the painting, and they are surprised, at the very end of the story, to learn that the painter has a hitherto-unknown personal reason for wanting to honor the wall.

As the children and other members of the community look at the mural, they notice that the features of various important African Americans have been painted on it:

The wall. Reds, greens, figures outlined in black. Swirls of  purple and orange. Storms of blues and yellows. It was something. I recognized some of the faces right off. There was Martin Luther King, Jr. And there was a man with glasses on and his mouth open like he was laying  down a heavy rap. Daddy came up alongside and reminded us that he was Minister Malcolm X. The serious woman with a rifle I knew was Harriet Tubman because my grandmamma has pictures of her all over the house.

The reference to Harriet Tubman is significant for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • She is a well-known symbol of African American resistance to slavery.
  • She served as a spy for the Union during the Civil War.
  • She actually helped rescue blacks from slavery as part of the so-called “Underground Railroad.”
  • She served the Union army in a variety of capacities during the Civil War.
  • She was later involved in the struggle for equal rights for women.
  • She not only led a highly active life but eventually described her actions in vivid words.

In all these ways, then (and many more), Tubman is a highly relevant figure to be included in a mural celebrating African-American heroes.