Harriet Tubman and the Dean Scream

tubman-500How easy is it to trash a person when the the truth is complicated and a cheap shot is simple?

Last year I was sitting with some nurses when someone mentioned that Howard Dean was speaking at the Providence Public Library.

“Dean scream.” someone else said, and everyone snickered.

I should have said something. I could have said how surprised I was that health professionals were making fun of the governor who instituted near-universal health care in Vermont. Dr. Dean and Dr. Rajiv Kumar are outstanding examples of public service, and they gave a rockin’ talk at the library.

Howard Dean was a contender in the Democratic presidential primary in 2004. He was attacked from the Right, and his own Party wasn’t ready for a candidate who supported universal health care and marriage equality. The nomination went to John Kerry. Who then had his Vietnam service slandered by ‘swiftboaters’ and even worse, was labelled ‘French’.

This is recent history fading fast. It bothered me to see a good man reduced to a joke. It happens when people don’t really know, so a knowing smirk gets them by.

What does the average American know about Harriet Tubman, her life and times? Photos show an old woman, lined face stoic in front of the camera. Who was she?

Langston Hughes famously asked if a dream deferred would “crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet.” Truth deferred is sweetened and made harmless. Really, we know more about Scarlett O’Hara and her spunky battle to keep her plantation than we do about the real women and men who fought the Civil War.

America has not yet had its own day of Truth and Reconciliation. Better the saintly Harriet Tubman than the guerrilla warrior.

In 1863, Tubman led a raid at Combahee River Ferry in Colleton County, South Carolina, allowing hundreds of slaves to escape to freedom. This was the first military operation in U.S. history planned and executed by a woman. Tubman, in disguise, had visited plantations in advance of the raid and instructed slaves to prepare to run to the river, where Union boats would be waiting for them. Union troops exchanged fire with Confederate troops and casualties were suffered on both sides.

What worries me about Russell Simmons taking a cheap shot at a freedom fighter is that there is nothing to oppose the ridicule except an equally unfair image of her as ‘a civil-rights icon’, and distant from anything that concerns us today. We are post-racial, after all. This difficult history is hardly taught, and soon forgotten. Icons can be safely framed on museum walls. And there are so many comforting entertainers to defuse any lingering discontents.

But before we give ourselves over to them we might want to consider these words of Harriet Tubman–

“If I could have convinced more slaves that they were slaves, I could have freed thousands more.”

Thanks to Agabond for the image of Harriet Tubman.

Colleen Scanlon, director of House of Compassion in Cumberland,RI, says that Harriet Tubman stayed at the house when it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The house is old enough and there were a lot of Abolitionists active at the time.

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2 Responses to Harriet Tubman and the Dean Scream

  1. Joel Dahlquist says:

    This is very thoughtful.

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