Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom Analysis
by Catherine Clinton

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Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom Analysis

This is an analysis of Catherine Clinton's book about Harriet Tubman; it's not a summary of it. If you want to know what's in the book, read it or check out the study guide available on this website. Both are excellent. I highly recommend the book.

The two most difficult things about writing a biography of Harriet Tubman are that so little is known about her and that so much is known about her. Details of her early life are sketchy, so Clinton has to piece them together out of scraps of second- or third-hand information and out of the historical context into which Tubman was born. Details of her later life are abundant, but they're colored by her notoriety, which means that the details weren't always accurate or flattering.

The book, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom resolves those difficulties with mountains of research and a closely-argued narrative. This sometimes tips over into an appreciation of the subject, but there's so much information there that readers who are wary of sympathetic biographies can make up their own minds. You can see the temptation to present Tubman as some kind of superhero in Chapter Six, "The Moses of Her People." Tales of abductor raids read like an adventure novel, except that they're true. Fortunately, this is balanced by the recounting of Tubman's difficulties and idiosyncrasies. Chapters Nine, Ten, and Twelve are still flattering, but they describe a stubborn agitator, unafraid to make enemies in the service of her cause. The data and the anecdotes are there for readers to make up their own minds. Clinton's narrative is like the stitching which holds together a garment. It's there, but it's hard to argue about stitching when there's so much else to talk about.

There's always a danger with this kind of book, that contemporary attitudes and standards get projected backwards into history, so that we get told the story of a freedom fighter who might have stepped out of a time machine into the Antebellum South. Clinton's book comes close to that, but she saves it by including Tubman's opinions of Abraham Lincoln, her embrace of John Brown, and her struggles with penury in her later life. It reminds readers used to curated social media identities that activism can be dangerous, morally ambiguous, and unglamorous. The book is also a subtle hint, projected forward from the past, that changing the world is hard work—that it takes more than a single vote or a single march to overcome oppression and injustice.