Page 16


Beverly Lowry tough because Tubman was illiterate: “She could not read, never learned to write, and so of necessity, others have acted as her scribe,” Lowry writes, “each making a case for who she was, how she looked … and sounded, how she managed to do what she did ….” Discovering why Tubman acted as she did is doubly complicated by the fact that she worked alone: “Having taught herself to develop and maintain an indifferent, almost casual attitude toward circumstancea rare skill and perhaps the real test of a genuine heroshe ran too fast to catch up with, listening only to the voices inside her headGod, she said, spoke directly to heroperating beyond sense, reason, and the boundaries of community, family, and marriage?’ Under the circumstances, a writer less confident than Lowry might never have put fingers to keyboard. Had Lowry balked, we would have been the poorer. Her Tubman is a vital, mysterious force, a dynamic presence that galvanized slaves and infuriated pro-slavery Southerners, mesmerized John Brown, and provoked northern moderates into action. Vigorous, yet prone to narcoleptic episodes resulting from a near-fatal head wound, she proved a powerful woman amid patriarchal oppression. Acting on instinct, she cut through intellectual dilemmas that knotted up so many of her contemporaries. In an era that revered the Constitution, she took the law into her own hands. Her family was glad she did, for Tubman was responsible for their freedom, repeatedly slipping south to bring them north, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, mother and father along with anyone else who showed up when Moses made her presence known by word or song. By 1858, she had emancipated upwards of 300 people, an astounding achievement given the era’s draconian legal treatment of slaves. Yet Tubman’s most striking rescue occurred in New York state in 1860. Charles Nalle, who had escaped from Virginia two years earlier, was working around Troy when a local lawyer, learning of his fugitive status, alerted Nalle’s former owner. Under provisions remained “a slave, a runaway, a black man, and a thief?’ By arresting him, U.S. Marshals ignited what the Troy Whig called “a grand state of turmoil:’ As news of Nalle’s incarceration spread, hundreds of black and white sympathizers crowded into Troy, among them Tubman, sporting a well-worn sunbonnet. The bonnet, Lowry writes, signaled to the crowd that “Moses is with them, and as long as Moses is there, Nalle is safe.” His safety would be hard-won: As officers tried to move Nalle, Tubman tackled one of them, was clubbed down, and managed to punch out her attacker. Then she grabbed Nalle, shouting for the crowd to drag them to the river: “Drown him but don’t let them have him:’ In the melee that followed, Nalle and the tenacious Tubman remain linked amid a fusillade of bullets and rocks. After several hours the crowd finally wrenched Nalle free, and Tubman guided himas she had so many othersinto a wagon that carried him to Canada. How had Tubman, who lived nearly 200 miles away, become the central figure in this riot? It’s impossible to know, Lowry concludes, without resorting to a mythic formula in which “the savior drops down at the exact moment of greatest need, fights, conquers, vanishes?’ Tubman’s next act was just as improbable. Following Lincoln’s election, the secession of the South, and the Civil War’s initial cannonades, she headed to Beaufort, South Carolina, which had fallen to the U.S. Navy in late 1861. Tubman hoped to improve life for newly freed men and women by serving as a nurse and provisioner. She also hoped to boost military operations by operating as a spy. Within weeks she had established a food-distribution system and a network of informants, pilots, and scouts. She and her volunteers guided the Union army on forays, most notably on the daring attacks along the Combahee River. A “gallant band of 300 soldiers under the guidance of a black woman dashed into 30 THE TEXAS OBSERVER AUGUST 10, 2007