February 06, 2004

Children and History

I have a horrible confession to make: I know almost nothing about Harriet Tubman. I know that she was an escaped slave, known by the nickname "Moses," who helped fugitives escape north to freedom via the Underground Railroad; I'd probably recognize a picture of her, and I have a vague sense that she was short. Beyond that, however, I'm not sure that I could tell you anything of interest about one of our country's most famous abolitionists.

I was therefore struck by the following passage from a short book review in Newsday:

'Who's Harriet Tubman?" my mother asked. I was in sixth grade and could not have been more appalled; it was as if she had asked who George Washington was. A well-informed person, my mother had majored in American history in college. How could she not know Harriet Tubman?

Historian Catherine Clinton's new biography of the legendary fugitive slave suggests why. Clinton notes that Tubman lapsed into obscurity in the early 20th century, not becoming the children's cultural icon that she now is until the civil rights movement. In the '60s, six children's and young adults' books were published about Tubman -- five in the '70s, six in the '80s, and a staggering 21 in the '90s. Since 2000, 16 more have been added to the tally. In my public elementary school in the '70s -- and this is no exaggeration -- we studied Harriet Tubman every single year.

Yet amidst all this juvenilia, there has been little serious scholarship on Tubman, which seems strange given her importance. ( This month Clinton's book is joined by Kate Clifford Lawson's "Bound for the Promised Land.")

This excerpt interested me for several reasons. First, it shows the way that current events (like the civil rights movement of the 1960s) can reshape our view of the past, transforming once-obscure figures into household names; it thus serves as an important reminder of the vicissitudes of historical reputation.

The article also helped me understand why I know so little about Harriet Tubman, who's scarcely more than a name to me. I strongly suspect that I first heard about her in elementary school (learning only as much as you'd expect from that level of education), and that I haven't heard anything more detailed since. I can think of good books that touch on the lives of other early abolitionists--check out The Kingdom of Matthias, by Sean Wilentz and Paul Johnson, is you're interested in a fascinating book that touches on Sojourner Truth's life story--but I don't know of good books describing Tubman's life in detail.

What's the lesson in all this? I have no idea. Perhaps it's a reminder that our elementary schools are an under-utilized force in teaching children the basics of history; if they can teach whole generations of children about a fascinating but little-known historical figure (with no coordination from above), then just think of what else they could do! On the other hand, perhaps this is a sign of the weakness of our secondary schools, which fail to build on the lessons our youngest children are taught. Maybe, finally, this is a sign of the superficiality of U.S. history education: our school kids have learned the most basic factual details and names from American history, but don't always know the rest of the story. Who knows?

Posted by Ed at February 6, 2004 05:56 PM

I think there was a Landmark History of Tubman, which is where basically all my knowledge of her come from. Not exactly serious scholarship, though...

Posted by: Kathleen at February 8, 2004 12:48 AM

The book to read is Catherine Clinton's new biography, _Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom_.

Posted by: Ralph E. Luker at February 10, 2004 04:43 PM
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