Friday, February 06, 2009

A Meeting of the Minds: When Harriet Met Sojourner by Catherine Clinton

Black History Month (February) and Women's History Month (March) are upon us. Catherine Clinton's When Harriet Met Sojourner is one book which offers much for either observation.

Staples of the Black History Month bookshelf, biographies of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth are numerous, and many are noteworthy. Some, such as the Caldecott Honor Book Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (Caldecott Honor Book) and Patricia McKissack's notable Sojourner Truth: Ain't I A Woman (Scholastic Biography), have covered the life stories of the greatest conductor of the Underground Railroad and the great Abolitionist leader honestly and compellingly.

Few, however, knew that these two leaders actually crossed paths once in their long lives of activism, meeting together in Boston in 1864, Harriet between assignments as a Union spy and Sojourner on a lecture there. Although the two women are among the best-known Black leaders in the pre-war era of slavery and the post-war period of Reconstruction, the two were both alike and different. Both were born slaves, Sojourner as Isabella Bomefree, slave to a Dutch farmer in upper New York state, Harriet born Araminta Ross twenty-eight years later in Maryland, and both were hired out to careless or brutal neighbors at a very young age. But Sojourner was over six feet tall and very strong, bearing five children before she was freed when slavery became illegal in New York; Harriet was tiny, plagued by fainting spells from an abusive injury, with no children of her own, who fled her plantation when her master's death promised that she and her family would be separated and sold south.

Yet both became the best-known female advocates for emancipation among the Abolitionist communities in the Northeast, and their words and their compelling stories ring down through the century or more since their time. Sojourner Truth assumed her symbolic name and took to the lecture halls, speaking boldly and movingly of the need for freedom, education, and full rights for her people until her death. Harriet Tubman led over 300 slaves to freedom from the Tidewater region, boasting that she "never lost a passenger" on the Underground Railroad. She worked fearlessly as a nurse, spy, and sometime military leader during the Civil War and went on to join the Women's Suffrage Movement, dying only a few years before women gained the right to vote.

No one recorded the words or the tenor of the meeting between these two women. We can only wonder at what they might have said to each other, Sojourner with her deep, Dutch-accented voice, Harriet with her softer, Southern speech. That they sought each other out shows, however, that as the author says, "They were connected by a kinship that went deeper than language, perhaps even deeper than blood--a kinship of the spirit."

During these two months honoring two groups formerly considered inconsequential to America's history, it is good to look again at these two remarkable women whose lives and courage still inspire all of us to speak and act for what is important in our national life.

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