Origin of Harriet Tubman in the Persistence of the Bicameral Mind
The movie ‘Harriet’ came out this year, amidst pandemic and protest. The portrayal of Harriet Tubman’s life and her strange abilities reminds one of Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind, as written about in what is now a classic work, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Some background will help and so let’s look at the biographical details of what is known. This famous Underground Railroad conductor was born Araminta Harriet Ross in the early 1820s and, when younger, she was known as ‘Minty’. Her parents were religious, as she would later become. She might also have been exposed to the various church affiliations of her master’s extended family.
These influences were diverse, writes James A. McGowan and William C. Kashatus in their book Harriet Tubman: A Biography (pp. 11-12): “As a child, Minty had been told Bible stories by her mother, and she was occasionally forced to attend the services held by Dr. Anthony Thompson, Jr., who was a licensed Methodist minister. But Minty and her parents might also have been influenced by Episcopal, Baptist, and Catholic teachings since the Pattisons, Thompsons, and Brodesses initially belonged to Anglican and Episcopal churches in Dorchester County before they became Methodists. In addition, some of the white Tubmans and Rosses were originally Catholic. Accordingly, Minty’s religious beliefs might have been a composite of several different Christian traditions that were adapted to the evangelical emphasis on spiritual freedom.”
Tubman’s mixed religious background was also noted by Kate C. Larson: “The “creolization” of this family more accurately reflects the blending of cultures from West Africa, Northern Europe, and local Indian peoples in the Chesapeake. As historian Mechal Sobel put it, this was a “world they made together.” By the time Tubman was born, first generation Africans were visible presences in Dorchester County […] Tubman and her family integrated a number of religious practices and beliefs into their daily lives, including Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, and even Quaker teachings, all religious denominations supported by local white masters and their neighbors who were intimately involved with Tubman’s family. Many slaves were required to attend the churches of their owners and temporary masters. Tubman’s religiosity, however, was a deeply personal spiritual experience, rooted in evangelical Christian teachings and familial traditions” (Harriet Ross Tubman).
Other scholars likewise agree, such as Robert Gudmestad: “Like many enslaved people, her belief system fused Christian and African beliefs” (Faith made Harriet Tubman fearless as she rescued slaves). This syncretism was made simpler for the commonalities traditional African religion had with Christianity or particular sects of Christianity: worship of one God who was supreme, relating to God as a helpful friend who could be heard and talked with (a commonality with Quakerism), belief in an eternal soul and an afterlife, rites and initiations involving immersion in water, etc. Early generations of slaves were often kept out of the churches and so this allowed folk religion to take on a life of its own with a slow merging of traditions, such as how African rhythms of mourning were incorporated into Gospel music.
Furthermore, religious fervor was at a peak in the early 1800s and it was part of the world Tubman’s parents lived in and that Tubman was born into. “Both races attended the massive camp meetings so Rit and Ben experienced these sporadic evangelical upsurges”, wrote Margaret Washington (Let The Circle Be Unbroken: The World Of Araminta (“Minty”) Ross Or The Making Of Harriet Tubman). “She grew up during the Second Great Awakening,” Gudmestad explained, “which was a Protestant religious revival in the United States. Preachers took the gospel of evangelical Christianity from place to place, and church membership flourished. Christians at this time believed that they needed to reform America in order to usher in Christ’s second coming.“ Some during that restless period believed it was the End Times, as it was easier to imagine the world coming to an end than to imagine it to become something else.
This would have been personally felt by Tubman. “A number of black female preachers,” Gudmestad goes on to say, “preached the message of revival and sanctification on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Jarena Lee was the first authorized female preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It is not clear if Tubman attended any of Lee’s camp meetings, but she was inspired by the evangelist. She came to understand that women could hold religious authority.” The religious fervor was part of a growing political fervor, as the country moved toward Civil War. For blacks, Moses leading his people to freedom inspired more than faith and hope toward the afterlife.
Around the time of Tubman’s birth, there was the failed 1822 revolt planned by Denmark Vesey in South Carolina. Later in 1831, Nat Turner led his rebellion in nearby Virginia and that would’ve been an exciting event for enslaved blacks, especially a lonely young slave girl who at the time was being kept separate from her family and mercilessly whipped. Then throughout her teens and into her early twenties, there were numerous other uprisings: 1835–1838 Black Seminole Slave Rebellion, 1839 Amistad seizure, 1841 Creole case, 1842 Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation. The Creole case was the most successful slave revolt in United States history. Such tremendous events, one might imagine, could shape a young impressionable mind.
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Harriet Tubman’s Ethno-Cultural Ancestry and Family Inheritance
Someone like Tubman didn’t come out of nowhere. “I am quite willing to acknowledge that she was almost an anomaly among her people,” wrote her early biographer Sarah Bradford, “and so far I can judge they all seem to be particularly intelligent, upright and religious people, and to have a strong feeling of family affection” (Harriet: The Moses of Her People). She earned her strong spirit honestly, from the black culture around here and as modeled by her parents. The spiritual inclinations, as with with knowledge of nature, came from her father: “As a clairvoyant, Minty believed that she inherited this second sense from her father, Ben. […] Listening to Ben’s stories, predictions and sharing his faith convinced Minty that an omniscient force protected her” (Margaret Washington, Let The Circle Be Unbroken: The World Of Araminta (“Minty”) Ross Or The Making Of Harriet Tubman). But it was her mother, in particular, who showed what it meant to be a fiercely protective woman when it came to family. When Tubman returned to free her family, including her elderly parents, she was acting on the values she was raised with:
“Rit struggled to keep her family together as slavery threatened to tear it apart. Edward Brodess sold three of her daughters (Linah, Mariah Ritty, and Soph), separating them from the family forever. When a trader from Georgia approached Brodess about buying Rit’s youngest son, Moses, she hid him for a month, aided by other enslaved people and freedmen in the community. At one point she confronted her owner about the sale. Finally, Brodess and “the Georgia man” came toward the slave quarters to seize the child, where Rit told them, “You are after my son; but the first man that comes into my house, I will split his head open.” Brodess backed away and abandoned the sale. Tubman’s biographers agree that stories told about this event within the family influenced her belief in the possibilities of resistance.“ (Harriet Tubman, Wikipedia)
Whatever the cause, a strong moral sense developed in Tubman. Around the age of twelve or fifteen, there was an incident where she refused to help an overseer catch and tie up a runaway slave. Instead, she stood in front of the door and blocked his way. He threw an iron weight after the escapee, but it came up short when it hit her in the head, knocking her unconscious. She later said that it “broke my skull” and, though her master wanted to send her back to work, it took her a long time to recover. “The teenager remained in a coma for weeks,” writes M.W. Taylor, “lying on a bed of rags in the corner of her family’s windowless wooden cabin. Not until the following spring was she able to get up and walk unaided” (Harriet Tubman: Antislavery Activist, p. 16). Kate C. Larson says that, “It took months for her mother to nurse her back to health” (Harriet Ross Tubman).
Ever after, she had seizures and trance-like states (“spells”, “sleeping fits”, or “a sort of stupor or lethargy at times”), premonitions and prophetic visions (“vivid dreams”), and out-of-body and other shamanic-like experiences — possibly caused by temporal lobe epilepsy, narcolepsy, cataplexy, or hypersomnia. She claimed to have heard the voice of God that guided and protected her, that He “spoke directly to my soul”. She “prayed all the time” and “was always talking to the Lord” — “When I went to the horse trough to wash my face, and took up the water n my hands, I said, ‘Oh Lord, wash me, make me clean.’ When I took up the towel to wipe my face and hands, I cried, ‘Oh Lord, for Jesus’ sake, wipe away all my sins!’ ” (Sarah H. Bradford, Harriet, p. 11).
“During these hallucinatory states,” writes Gordon S. Johnson Jr., “she would also hear voices, screams, music, and rushing water, and feel as though her skin was on fire, while still aware of what was going on around her. The attacks could occur suddenly, without warning, even in the middle of a conversation. She would wake up and pick up the conversation where it left off a half hour later. In addition, Tubman would have terrible headaches, and would become more religious after the injury” (Harriet Tubman Suffered a TBI Early In Life).
While recuperating, she prayed for her master’s soul, that he might be saved and become a Christian. Her master’s behavior didn’t improve. In her stupor, no amount of whipping would arouse her. So he tried to sell her, but no one wanted to buy an injured and incapacitated slave, even though prior to the accident she had been hardworking and was able to do the work of a full-grown man. She didn’t want to be sold and separated from her family. One day she prayed that, if her master couldn’t be saved, the Lord should kill him and take him away. Shortly later, he did die and, with overwhelming guilt, she felt her prayer had been the cause.
Tubman’s experiences may have been shaped by African traditions, as there were many first generation slaves around. She would have been close to her immediate and extended family living in the area, as described by Professor Larson: “Harriet Tubman’s grandmother, Modesty, lived on Pattison’s property for an undetermined number of years after Rit left with Mary and moved to the Thompson plantation. Though the Thompson plantation sat about 6 miles to the west of the Pattison plantation and their neighbors along the Little Blackwater River near the bridge, their interactions were likely frequent and essential to maintaining social, political, and economic wellbeing” (Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument: Historic Resource Study).
An important familial link, as discussed above, was their shared religious inheritance. “Methodism was one source of strength, blending smoothly with cultural and religious traditions that survived the middle passage from Africa,” wrote Professor Larson. “First generation Africans, like her grandmother Modesty, embodied a living African connection and memory for the Bradford, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. Tubman’s religious fervor and trust in God to protect and guide her evolved from a fusion of these traditions.” Tubman remained close to family living on nearby plantations, such as being hired out to do logging work with her father and quite likely hearing the same sermons, maybe sometimes clandestinely meeting in the “hidden church” of informal religious gatherings.
Her first biographer, Fanklin Sanborn, said that she was “one degree removed from the wolds of Africa, her grandfather being an imported African of a chieftan family” and that, as “the grand-daughter of a slave imported from Africa,” she “has not a drop of white blood in her veins” (“The Late Araminta Davis: Better Known as ‘Moses’ or ‘Harriet Tubman’.” Franklin B. Sanborn Papers. Box 1, Folder 5. Box 1, Folder 5, American Antiquarian Society). The latter claim of her being pure African ancestry has been disputed and was contradicted by other accounts, but at least part of her family was of recent African ancestry as was common in that era, making her a second generation American in at least one line. With a living memory of the Old World, Tubman’s maternal grandmother Modesty Green would have been treated as what is called a griot, an elder who is a teacher, healer, and counselor; a keeper of knowledge, wisdom, and customs. She would have remembered the old world and had learned much about how to live in the new one, helping to shape the creole culture into which Tubman was born.
Modesty might have come from the Ashanti tribe of West Africa, specifically Ghana. She was sold as a slave sometime before 1785, the year Tubman’s mother Rittia (Rit, Ritty) Green was born. The Ashanti ethnicity was common in the region, writes Ann Malaspina: “During the eighteenth century, more than one million slaves were bought by British, Danish, and Dutch slave traders and shipped to the Americas from the Ashanti Empire on West Africa’s Gold Coast, a rich trading region. Many Ashanti slaves were sold to buyers in Maryland” (Harriet Tubman, p. 10). The Ashanti had a proud reputation and the ethnic culture made its presence known, such as the “Asante proverbs that Harriet picked up as a young girl (“Don’t test the depth of a river with both feet”)” (Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman). Along with the Ashante, blacks of Igbo descent were numerous in the Tidewater region of Maryland and Virginia (Igbo Americans, Wikipedia). These cultures, along with the Kongo people, were known to be proud and loyal. Also, West Africa had a tradition of respect for women — as property owners and leaders, and sometimes as warriors.
It’s the reason the Tidewater plantation owners preferred them as slaves. The preference in the Deep South was different because down there plantations were large commercial operations with typically absentee owners, an aristocracy that spent most of its time in Charleston, England, or elsewhere. Tidewater slaveholders had smaller plantations and were less prosperous. This meant they and their families lived close to slaves and, in some cases, would have worked with them. These Tidewater aristocrats were more likely to use the paternalistic rhetoric that identified slaves as part of the extended family, as often was literally the case from generations of close relations with many of the plantation owner’s mulatto children, grandchildren, cousins, etc running around. Cultures like the Ashanti and Igbo, in being strongly devoted to their families and communities, could be manipulated to keep slaves from running away. The downside to this communal solidarity is that these ethnic groups were known to be disobedient and cause a lot of trouble, including some of the greatest slave rebellions
Tubman is an exemplar of this Tidewater black culture. According to her own statements recorded by Frank C. Drake: “the old mammies to whom she told [her] dreams were wont to nod knowingly and say, ‘I reckon youse one o’ dem ‘Shantees’, chile.’ For they knew the tradition of the unconquerable Ashantee blood, which in a slave made him a thorn in the side of the planter or cane grower whose property he became, so that few of that race were in bondage” (“The Moses of Her People. Amazing Life work of Harriet Tubman,” New York Herald, New York, Sept. 22, 1907). The claim about her grandmother was confirmed by a piece from the year before Tubman’s death, written by Ann Fitzhugh Miller (granddaughter of Tubman’s friend Gerrit Smith), in reporting that Tubman believed her maternal grandmother had been “brought in a slave ship from Africa” (“Harriet Tubman,” American Review, August 1912, p. 420).
Professor Kate C. Larson concludes that, “It has been generally assumed at least one if not more of Tubman’s grandparents came directly from Africa” (Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument: Historic Resource Study). This is the reason for speculating about a more direct African influence or, at the very least, it shows how important an African identity was to Tubman’s sense of faith and spirituality. “Like many enslaved people, her belief system fused Christian and African beliefs,” Robert Gudmestad suggests. “Her belief that there was no separation between the physical and spiritual worlds was a direct result of African religious practices. Tubman literally believed that she moved between a physical existence and a spiritual experience where she sometimes flew over the land.”
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Harriet Tubman’s Special Relationship with God and Archaic Authorization
Whatever was the original source and true nature of Harriet Tubman’s abilities, they did serve her well in freeing slaves and saved her from her pursuers. She always trusted her voices and visions, and would change her course of action in an instant, such as the time God told her to not continue down a road and so, without hesitation, she led her fellow fugitives across the rushing waters of an icy stream, but the “several stout men” in her care “refused to follow til they saw her safe on the other side”. Sarah Bradford goes on to say that, “The strange part of the story we found to be, that the masters of these men had put up the previous day, at the railroad station near where she left, an advertisement for them, offering a large reward for their apprehension; but they made a safe exit” (p. 45). Commenting on this incident, McGowan and Kashatus notes, “Similar instances occurred on her rescue missions whenever Harriet was forced to make an important decision” (Harriet Tubman: A Biography, p. 62).
This divine guidance probably made her behavior erratic and unpredictable, always one step ahead (or one step to the side) of the slave-catchers — maybe not unlike the Trickster stories she likely heard growing up, as part of the folklore tradition in African-American communities or possibly picked up from Native Americans who still lived in the area. Maybe there is a reason both Trickster stories and voice-hearing are often found in oral cultures. The Trickster, as an archetype similar to salvific figures, exists between the divine and human — Jesus often played the role of Trickster. Looking more closely at this mentality might also tell us something about the bicameral mind.
Her visions and voice-hearing was also a comfort and assurance to her; and, as some suggested, this gave her “command over others’ minds” (Edna Cheney, “Moses”, The Freedmen’s Record, p. 35) — that is to say, when around her, people paid attention and did what they were told. She had the power of charisma and persuasion, and failing that she had a gun that she was not afraid to use too good effect. She heard God’s voice in conviction and so she spoke with conviction. One was wise to not doubt her and, when leading slaves to freedom, she did not tolerate anyone challenging her authority. But it was in moments of solitude that she most strongly felt the divine. Based on interviews with Tubman in 1865, Edna Cheney conveyed it in the following way:
“When going on these journeys she often lay alone in the forests all night. Her whole soul was filled with awe of the mysterious Unseen Presence, which thrilled her with such depths of emotion, that all other care and fear vanished. Then she seemed to speak with her Maker “as a man talketh with his friend;” her child-like petitions had direct answers, and beautiful visions lifted her up above all doubt and anxiety into serene trust and faith. No man can be a hero without this faith in some form; the sense that he walks not in his own strength, but leaning on an almighty arm. Call it fate, destiny, what you will, Moses of old, Moses of to-day, believed it to be Almight God” (p. 36).
Friends and co-conspirators described Tubman as having lacked the gnawing anxiety and doubt that, according to Julian Jaynes, has marked egoic consciousness since the collapse of Bronze Age civilization. “Great fears were entertained for her safety,” according to William Still, an African American abolitionist who personally knew her, “but she seemed wholly devoid of personal fear. The idea of being captured by slave-hunters or slave-holders, seemed never to enter her mind.” That kind of absolute courage and conviction, based on trust of voices and visions, is not common in the modern mind. Her example inspired and impressed many.
Thomas Garrett, a close confidante, said that, “I never met with any person, of any color, who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul. She has frequently told me that she talked with God, and he talked with her every day of her life, and she has declared to me that she felt no more fear of being arrested by her former master, or any other person, when in his immediate neighborhood, than she did in the State of New York, or Canada, for she said she never ventured only where God sent her, and her faith in a Supreme Power truly was great” (letter, 1868). As an aside, there is an interesting detail about her relationship with God — it was told by Samuel Hopkins Adams, grandson of Tubman’s friend and benefactor Samuel Miles Hopkins (brother of Tubman’s biographer Sarah Bradford): “Her relations with the Deity were personal, even intimate, though respectful on her part. He always addressed her as Araminta, which was her christened name” (“Slave in the Family”, Grandfather Stories, pp. 277-278; quoted by Jean M. Humez on p. 355 of Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories).
In summarizing her faith, Milton C. Sernett concluded that, “Tubman did not distinguish between seer and saint. She seems to have believed that her trust in the Lord enabled her to meet all of life’s exigencies with a confident foreknowledge of how things would turn out, a habit others found impressive, or uncanny, as the case may be” (Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History, p. 145). That is it. This supreme confidence did not come from herself. At one moment of uncertainty, she was faced with making a decision. “The Lord told me to do this. I said, ‘Oh Lord, I can’t—don’t ask me—take somebody else.” God then spoke to her: “It’s you I want, Harriet Tubman” (Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom).
Anyone familiar with Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind would perk up at this discussion of voice-hearing, specifically of commanding voices with the undeniable and infallible power of archaic authorization. Besides this, he spoke of three other necessary components to the general bicameral paradigm, as much relevant today as it was during the Bronze Age (The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, p. 324):
- “The collective cognitive imperative, or belief system, a culturally agreed-on expectancy or prescription which defines the particular form of a phenomenon and the roles to be acted out within that form”
- “an induction or formally ritualized procedure whose function is the narrowing of consciousness by focusing attention on a small range of preoccupations”
- “the trance itself, a response to both the preceding, characterized by a lessening of consciousness or its loss, the diminishing of the analog or its loss, resulting in a role that is accepted, tolerated, or encouraged by the group”
Collective cognitive imperative is central what we are exploring here. Tubman grew up in a culture where such spiritual, paranormal, and shamanic experiences were still part of a living tradition, including traces of traditional African religion. She lacked doubt about this greater reality because almost everyone around her shared this sense of faith. As social creatures, such shared culture has a powerful effect upon the human mind. But at that point in early modernity when Tubman grew up, most of American society had lost the practices of induction and hence the ability to enter trances.
The Evangelical church, however, has long promoted trance experiences and trained people how to talk to God and listen for his voice (still does, in some cases: Tanya Luhrmann, When God Talks Back). Because of her brain condition, Tubman didn’t necessarily require induction, although her ritual of constant prayer probably helped. She went into trance apparently without having to try, one might say against her will. There is also another important contributing factor. Voice-hearing has historically been most common among non-literate, especially preliterate, societies — that is because the written word alters the human mind, as argued by many besides Jaynes: Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, etc. Such illiteracy would describe the American slave population since it was against the law for them to read and write.
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Harriet Tubman’s Illiteracy and Storytelling Talent
This state of illiteracy included Tubman. During the Civil War, she spoke of a desire to become literate so as to “write her own life” (Cheney, p. 38), but there is no evidence she ever learned to write. “The blow to the head of Tubman received at about thirteen may have been the root cause of her illiteracy. According to Cheney’s sketch, “The trouble in her head prevents her from applying closely to a book” “ (Milton C. Sernett, Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History, p. 105). She remained her whole life fully immersed in an oral mindset. This was demonstrated by her heavy use of figurative language with concrete imagery, as when describing a Civil War battle — recorded by visiting historian Albert Bushnell Hart:
“And then we saw the lightning, and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder, and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped” (Slavery and Abolition, p. 209). Also, consider how she spoke of her personal experiences: “She loves to describe her visions, which are very real to her; but she must tell them word for word as they lie in her untutored mind, with endless repetitions and details, she cannot condensed them, whatever be your haste. She has great dramatic power; the scene rises before you as she saw it, and her voice and language change with her different actors” (Cheney, pp. 36-37).
Elaborating on her storytelling talent, Jean M. Humez writes: “One of Earl Conrad’s informants who as a child had known Tubman in her old age reported: “there never was any variation in the stories she told, whether to me or to any other” (Tatlock, 1939a). It is characteristic of the folklore performer trained in an oral culture to tell a story in precisely the right way each time. This is because the story itself is often regarded as a form of knowledge that will educate the young and be passed down through the generations. The storyteller must not weaken the story’s integrity with a poor performance” (Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories, p. 135).
This was also heard in how Tubman drew upon the down-to-earth style of old school religion: “Instead of the classical Greek “tricks of oratory” to which the college-educated Higginson refers, Tubman drew upon homelier sources of eloquence, such as scriptures she would have heard preached in the South. She frequently employed a teaching technique made familiar in the New Testament Gospels—the “parable’ or narrative metaphor—to make her lessons persuasive and memorable” (Jean M. Humez, Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories, p. 135). She knew of Jesus’ message through oral tellings by preachers and that was fitting since Jesus too effectively taught in the spoken word.
She was masterful. Even before a crowd of respectable whites, such as at abolitionist meetings, she could captivate an audience and move them to great emotion. Having witnessed a performance of Tubman’s oft-repeated story of former slave Joe’s arrival in Canada along with a rendition of the song he sang in joyous praise, Charlotte Forten recorded the impact it had on those present: “How exciting it was to hear her tell the story. And to hear the very scraps of jubilant hymns that he sang. She said the ladies crowded around them, and some laughed and some cried. My own eyes were full I listened to her” (Charlotte Forten, journal entry, Saturday, January 31, 1862).
All of these ways of speaking are typical of those born in oral societies. As such, her illiteracy might have been key. “She is a rare instance,” as told in The Freedmen’s Record, “in the midst of high civilization and intellectual culture, of a being of great native powers, working powerfully, and to beneficient ends, entirely unaided by school or books” (Cheney, p. 34). Maybe the two factors are closely linked. Even in the ancient world, some of the most famous and respected oracles were given by the uneducated and illiterate, often women. Tubman did have the oracular about her, as she occasionally prophesied outcomes and coming events.
We mainly know of Tubman through the stories she told and retold of herself and her achievements, surely having been important in gaining support and raising funds in those early years when she needed provisions to make her trips to the South. She came from a storytelling tradition and, obviously, she knew how to entertain and persuade, to make real the plight of the still enslaved and the dangers it took to gain their freedom. She drew in her audience, as if they were there with bloodhounds tracking them, with their lives hanging in the balance of a single wrong decision or unfortunate turn of events.
One of her greatest talents was weaving song into her stories, but that was also part of oral culture. The slave’s life was filled with song, from morning to night. They sung in church and while at work, at births and burials. These songs were often stories, many of them taken from or inspired by the religion that was so much a part of their daily experience. Song itself was a form of language: “Tubman used spirituals to signal her arrival or as a secret code to tell of her plans. She also used spirituals to reassure those she was leading of their safety and to lift their spirits during the long journey to freedom” (M.W. Taylor, Harriet Tubman: Antislavery Activist, p. 18). She also used the song of birds and owls to communicate, something she may have learned from the African or Native American tradition.
Song defined Tubman, as much as did her spirituality. “Religious songs,” Jean M. Humez explains, “embellished Tubman’s oral storytelling performances and were frequently central plot elements in her most popular Underground Railroad stories. There was the story of teasing the thick-witted “master” the night before her escape by using a familiar Methodist song, “I’m Bound for the Promised Land,” to communicate to her family her intention to run away. Singing was also integral to her much-told story about coded communication with fugitives she had hidden in the woods. “Go Down, Moses” meant “stay hidden,” while a “Methodist air,” “Hail, oh hail, ye happy spirits,” meant “all clear” (Bradford, 1869)” (Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories, p. 136).
Humez goes on to say that, “Though she was able to capture and reproduce the lyrics for her readers, Bradford was evidently bewildered by Tubman’s musical performances in much the same way Cheney was by her spiritual testimony: “The air sung to these words was so wild, so full of plaintive minor strains, and unexpected quavers, that I would defy any white person to learn it, and often as I heard it, it was to me a constant surprise” (Bradford, 1886, 35-36).” Her performances used a full range expression, including through her movement. She would wave her arms and clap her hands, sway and stamp her feet, dance and gesture — according to the details of what she spoke and rhythm of what she sang (Humez, p. 137). Orality is an embodied way of communicating.
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Harriet Tubman’s Voice-Hearing and the Power of Oral Culture
Tubman may have been more talented and charismatic than most, but one suspects that such a commanding presence of speech and rhetorical persuasion would have been far more common among the enslaved who were raised in an oral culture where language was one of the few sources of power in defense against those who wielded physical violence and political force — such as the necessary ability for survival to use language that was coded and veiled, symbolic and metaphorical, whether in conversation or song, in order to communicate without stating something directly for fear of being overheard.
Her display of orality would have impressed many whites simply because literacy and the literary mind by that point had become the norm among the well-off white abolitionists who came to hear her. Generations had passed since orality had been prevalent in mainstream American society, especially among the emerging liberal class. The traditional culture of the ancien regime had been eroding since the colonial era. There is a power in oral cultures that the modern mind has forgotten, but there were those like Tubman who carried the last traces of oral culture into the 20th century before she finally died in her early 90s in 1913.
The bewilderment of whites, slave-catchers and abolitionists alike, by Tubman’s prowess makes one think of another example of the power of oral culture. The Mongol hordes, as they were perceived, acted in a way that was incomprehensible to the literate ruling elite of European feudalism. Genghis Khan established a mnemonic system used among his illiterate cavalry that allowed messages to be spread quickly and accurately. As all Mongols rode horses and carried all food with them, they were able to act collectively like a swarm and so could easily shift strategy in the middle of a battle. Oral culture had less rigid hierarchy. It was also highly religious and based in a shamanic tradition not unlike that of Africa. Genghis Khan regularly prayed to God, fasting for days until getting a clear message before he would leave on a military campaign. In similar fashion, Thomas Garrett said of Tubman: “She is a firm believer in spiritual manifestations […] she never goes on her missions of mercy without his (God’s) consent” (letter to Eliza Wigham, Dec. 27, 1856).
One imagines that, as with that Mongol leader, Tubman was so successful for the reason she wielded archaic authorization. That was the underlying force of personality and persuasion that made her way of speaking and acting so compelling, for the voice of God spoke through her. It was a much greater way of being in the world, a porous self that extended much further and that could reach into the heart and minds of others, apparently not limited to humans. Her “contemporaries noted that Tubman had a strange power over all animals—another indication of psychic ability—and insisted that she never feared the bloodhounds who dogged her trail when she became and Underground Railroad agent” (James A. McGowan & William C. Kashatus, Harriet Tubman: A Biography, pp. 10-11). Psychic ability or simply a rare example of a well-functioning bicameral mind in the modern era.
Some people did perceive her as being psychic or otherwise having an uncanny perception, an ability to know things it seems she shouldn’t be able to know. It depends on one’s psychological interpretation and theological persuasion. Her compatriot Thomas Garrett was also strongly religious in his commitment to abolitionism. “In fact,” states McGowan and Kashatus, “Garrett compared Harriet’s psychic ability to hear “the voice of God as spoken direct to her soul” to the Quakers’ concept of an Inner Light, or a divine presence in each human being that allows them to do God’s will on earth. Because of their common emphasis on a mystical experience and a shared religious perspective, Tubman and the Quakers developed a mutual trust” (Harriet Tubman: A Biography, p. 62). A particular incident helps explain Garret’s appraisal, from the same book (pp. 59-60):
“One late afternoon in mid-October 1856, Harriet arrived in Wilmington, Delaware, in need of funding for a rescue mission to the Eastern Shore. She went immediately to the office of Thomas Garrett, a white Quaker station master who also operated a hardware business in the town. “God sent me to you, Thomas,” said Harriet, dismissing the formality of a simple greeting. “He tells me you have money for me.” Amused by the request, Garrett jokingly asked: “Has God ever deceived thee?” “No,” she snapped. “I have always been liberal with thee, Harriet, and wish to be of assistance,” said the Quaker station master, stringing her along. “But I am not rich and cannot afford to give thee much.” Undeterred by the response, Harriet shot back: “God told me you’ve got money for me, and God never fools me!” Realizing that she was getting upset, Garrett cut to the chase: “Well, then, how much does thee need?” After reflecting a moment, Tubman said, “About 23 dollars.”
“The elderly Quaker shook his head in disbelief. Harriet’s request was almost exactly the amount he had received from an antislavery society in Scotland for her specific use. He went to his cash box, retrieved the donation, and handed it to his visitor. Smiling at her benefactor, Tubman took the cash, turned abruptly and marched out of the office. Astonished by the incident, Garrett later confided to another abolitionist that “there was something remarkable” about Harriet. “Whether it [was] clairvoyance or the divine impression on her mind, I cannot tell,” he admitted. “But I am certain she has a guide within herself other than the written word, for she never had any education.”1 By most accounts, Tubman’s behavior can be described as selfrighteous, if not extremely presumptuous. But she viewed herself as being chosen by God for the special duty of a liberator. In fact, she admitted that she “felt like Moses,” the Old Testament prophet, because “the Lord told me to go down South and bring up my brothers and sisters.” When she expressed doubt about her abilities and suggested that the Lord “take somebody else,” He replied: “It’s you I want, Harriet Tubman.”2 With such a divine commission, Tubman was confident that her visions and actions—no matter how rude by 19th–century society’s standards—were condoned by the Almighty. Thomas Garrett understood that.”
There is no doubt she had an instinctive understanding that was built on an impressive awareness, a keen presence of mind — call it psychic or bicameral. With our rigid egoic boundaries and schizoid mentality, we inhabitants of this modern hyper-individualistic world have much to learn about the deeper realms of the bundled mind, of the multiplicity of self. We have made ourselves alien to our own human and animal nature, and we are the lesser for it. The post-bicameral loss of not only God’s voice but of a more expansive way of being is still felt in a nostalgic longing that continues to rule over us, ever leading to backlashes of the reactionary mind. Even with possible brain damage, Tubman was no where near as mentally crippled as we are with our prized ego-consciousness that shuts out all other voices and presences.
In the Western world, it would be hard to find such a fine specimen of visionary voice-hearing. Harriet Tubman had a genius about her, both genius in the modern sense of brilliance and genius in the ancient sense of a guiding spirit. If she were around today, she would likely be medicated and institutionalized or maybe imprisoned, as a threat to sane and civil society (Bruce Levine, “Sublime Madness”: Anarchists, Psychiatric Survivors, Emma Goldman & Harriet Tubman). Yet there are still other societies, including developed countries, in the world where this is not the case.
Tanya Luhrmann, as inspired by Julian Jaynes, went into anthropology where she researches voice-hearing (her work on evangelicalism is briefly noted above). One study she did compared the experience of voice-hearers in the Ghana and the United States (Differences in voice-hearing experiences of people with psychosis in the U.S.A., India and Ghana: interview-based study). Unlike here in this country, those voice-hearer’s in certain non-Western culture are not treated as mentally ill and, unsurprisingly, neither do they experience cruel and persecutory voices — quite the opposite in being kind, affirming, and helpful as was the case with Tubman.
“In the case of voice hearing, culture may also play a role in helping people cope. One study conducted by Luhrmann, the anthropologist, found that compared to their American counterparts, voice-hearing people diagnosed with schizophrenia in more collectivist cultures were more likely to perceive their voices as helpful and friendly, sometimes even resembling members of their friends and family. She adds that people who meet criteria for schizophrenia in India have better outcomes than their U.S. counterparts. She suspects this is because of “the negative salience” a diagnosis of schizophrenia holds in the U.S., as well as the greater rates of homelessness among people with schizophrenia in America” (Joseph Frankel, Psychics Who Hear Voices Could Be On to Something).
One suspects that the Ashanti and related African cultures that helped shape black traditions in Tubman’s Maryland are basically the same as the culture still existing in Ghana to this day. After all, the Ashanti Empire that began in the early colonial era, 1701, continued its rule well into the twentieth century, 1957. If it’s true that her grandmother Modesty was Ashanti, that would go a long way in explaining the cultural background to Tubman’s voice-hearing. It’s been speculated her father was the child of two Africans and it was directly from him that she claimed to have inherited her peculiar talents. It’s possible that elements of the bicameral mind survived later in those West African societies and from there was carried across the Middle Passage.
* * *
The Friendship and Freedom of the Living God
It’s important to think about the bicameral mind by looking at real world examples of voice-hearing. It might teach us something about what it means to be in relationship with a living God — a living world, a living experience of the greater mind, the bundled self (no matter one’s beliefs). Many Christians talk about such things, but few take it seriously, much less experience it or seek it out. That was what drew the Quakers to Tubman and others like her influenced by the African tradition of a living God. It wasn’t only a commonality of politics, in fighting for abolitionism and such. Rather, the politics was an expression of that particular kind of spiritual and epistemological experience.
To personally know God — or, if you prefer, to directly know concrete, lived reality — without the intervention of either priest or text or the equivalent can create immense power through authorization. It is an ability to act with confidence, rather than bowing down to external authority of hierarchical institutions, be it church clergy or plantation aristocracy. But it also avoids the other extreme, that of getting lost in the abstractions of the egoic consciousness that drain psychic reserves and make human will impotent. As Harriet Tubman proved, this other way of being can be a source of empowerment and liberation.
What made this possible is not only that she was illiterate but unchurched as well. In their own way, Quakers traditionally maintained a practice of being unchurched, in avoiding certain formal church institutions such as eschewing the ministerial profession. Slaves, on the other hand, were often forced to be unchurched in not being allowed to participate in formal religion. This would have helped maintain traditional African spiritual practice and experience. Interestingly, as J.E. Kennedy reports, one set of data found that “belief in the paranormal was positively related to religious faith but negatively related to religious participation” (The Polarization of Psi Beliefs; as discussed in NDE: Spirituality vs Religiosity). It’s ironic that formal religion (organized, institutionalized) and literacy, specifically in a text-based religion, have the powerful effect of disconnecting people from experience of God. Yet experience of God can break the spell of that mind virus.
The other thing is that, like African religion, the Quaker emphasis was on the communal. This might not seem obvious, in how Quakers believed in the individual’s relationship to God. That is where Tubman’s example is helpful. She too had an individual relationship to God, but her identity was also tied closely to kinship, community, and ancestry. We need to think more carefully about what is meant when we speak of individuality. One can gain one’s own private liberty by freeing oneself from shackled enslavement, that is to say changing one’s status from owned by another to owned by oneself (i.e., owned by the ego-self, in some ways an even more harsh taskmaster). Freedom, however, is something else entirely. The etymology of ‘freedom’ is the same as ‘friend’. To be free is to be among friends, to be a member of a free society — one is reminded that, to Quakers and West Africans alike, there was an inclination to relate to God as a friend. Considering this simple but profound understanding, it wasn’t enough for Tubman to escape her oppressive bondage, if she left behind everyone she loved.
Often she repeated her moral claim for either liberty or death, as if they were of equivalent value; whereas freedom is about life and the essence of life is shared, as freedom is always about connection and relationship, about solidarity and belonging. She couldn’t be free alone and, under the will of something greater than her, she returned South to free her kith and kin. The year Harriet Tubman first sought freedom, 1849, was the same year of the birth of Emma Lazarus, a poet who would write some of the most well known words on slavery and oppression, including the simple statement that, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” About a century later, this was rephrased by Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights movement when he said, “No one is free until we are all free.” One could trace this insight back to the ancient world, as when Jesus spoke that, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” That is freedom.
A living God lives among a living generation of people, a living community. “For where two or three gather in my name,” as Jesus also taught, “there am I with them.” Quakers had a tradition of living constitutionalism, something now associated with liberalism but originally having its origins in a profound sense of the divine (Where Liberty and Freedom Converge). To the Quaker worldview, a constitution is a living agreement and expression of the Divine, a covenant between God a specific people; related to why Quakers denied natural law that would usurp the authorization of this divine presence. A constitution is not a piece of paper nor the words upon it. Nor can a constitution be imposed upon other people outside of that community of souls. So, neither slaves nor following generations are beholden to a constitution enacted by someone else. This was why Thomas Jefferson assumed later Americans would forever seek out new constitutions to express their democratic voice as a people. But those who understood this the best were Quakers; or those, like Thomas Paine, who were early on influenced by the Quaker faith.
Consider John Dickinson who was raised as a Quaker and, after inheriting slaves, freed them. He is the author of the first draft of America’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, which was inspired by Quaker constitutionalism. The Articles of Confederation was a living document, in that it’s only power was the authority of every state agreeing to it with total consensus and no change being allowed to be made to it without further consensus. The second constitution, simply known as the United States Constitution and unconstitutionally established according to the first constitution (The Vague and Ambiguous US Constitution), was designed to be a dead letter and it has become famous for enshrining the institution of slavery. Rather than expressing a message of freedom, it was a new system of centralized power and authority. The deity invoked under this oppression is a dead god, a god of death. No one hears the voice of this false god, this demiurge.
Such a false idol can make no moral claim over a free people. As such, a free people assert their freedom by the simplest act of walking away, as did Harriet Tubman by following the water gourd pointing to the North Star, and as she repeated many times in guiding her people to what to them was the Promised Land. What guided her was the living voice of the living God. They had their own divine covenant that took precedence over any paper scribbled upon by a human hand.
* * *
Harriet Tubman, an Unsung Naturalist, Used Owl Calls as a Signal on the Underground Railroad
by Allison Keys, Audubon Magazine
“It was in those timber fields where she learned the skills necessary to be a successful conductor on the Underground Railroad,” Crenshaw explains, “including how to read the landscape, how to be comfortable in the woods, how to navigate and use the sounds that were natural in Dorchester County at the time.”
Underground Railroad Secret Codes
from Harriet Tubman Historical Society
Supporters of the Underground Railroad used words railroad conductors employed everyday to create their own code as secret language in order to help slaves escape. Railroad language was chosen because the railroad was an emerging form of transportation and its communication language was not widespread. Code words would be used in letters to “agents” so that if they were intercepted they could not be caught. Underground Railroad code was also used in songs sung by slaves to communicate among each other without their masters being aware.
Myths & Facts About Harriet Tubman
from National Park Service
Tubman sang two songs while operating her rescue missions. Both are listed in Sarah Bradford’s biography Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman: “Go Down Moses,” and, “Bound For the Promised Land.” Tubman said she changed the tempo of the songs to indicate whether it was safe to come out or not.
Songs of the Underground Railroad
from Harriet Tubman Historical Society
Songs were used in everyday life by African slaves. Singing was tradition brought from Africa by the first slaves; sometimes their songs are called spirituals. Singing served many purposes such as providing repetitive rhythm for repetitive manual work, inspiration and motivation. Singing was also use to express their values and solidarity with each other and during celebrations. Songs were used as tools to remember and communicate since the majority of slaves could not read.
Harriet Tubman and other slaves used songs as a strategy to communicate with slaves in their struggle for freedom. Coded songs contained words giving directions on how to escape also known as signal songs or where to meet known as map songs.
Songs used Biblical references and analogies of Biblical people, places and stories, comparing them to their own history of slavery. For example, “being bound for the land of Canaan” for a white person could mean ready to die and go to heaven; but to a slave it meant ready to go to Canada.
Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman
by Sarah Hopkins Bradford
After nightfall, the sound of a hymn sung at a distance comes upon the ears of the concealed and famished fugitives in the woods, and they know that their deliverer is at hand. They listen eagerly for the words she sings, for by them they are to be warned of danger, or informed of safety. Nearer and nearer comes the unseen singer, and the words are wafted to their ears:
Hail, oh hail ye happy spirits,
Death no more shall make you fear,
No grief nor sorrow, pain nor anger (anguish)
Shall no more distress you there.
Around him are ten thousan’ angels,
Always ready to ‘bey comman’.
Dey are always hobring round you,
Till you reach the hebbenly lan’.
Jesus, Jesus will go wid you;
He will lead you to his throne;
He who died has gone before you,
Trod de wine-press all alone.
He whose thunders shake creation;
He who bids the planets roll;
He who rides upon the temple, (tempest)
An’ his scepter sways de whole.
Dark and thorny is de desert,
Through de pilgrim makes his ways,
Yet beyon’ dis vale of sorrow,
Lies de fiel’s of endless days.
I give these words exactly as Harriet sang them to me to a sweet and simple Methodist air. “De first time I go by singing dis hymn, dey don’t come out to me,” she said, “till I listen if de coast is clar; den when I go back and sing it again, dey come out. But if I sing:
Moses go down in Egypt,
Till ole Pharo’ let me go;
Hadn’t been for Adam’s fall,
Shouldn’t hab to died at all,
den dey don’t come out, for dere’s danger in de way.”
Let The Circle Be Unbroken: The World Of Araminta (“Minty”) Ross Or The Making Of Harriet Tubman
by Margaret Washington
I. Building Communities
C. It Takes a Village to Raise a Child.
Enslaved African Americans came from a heritage that embraced concepts of solidarity in a descending order from the larger ethnic group, to the communal village, to the extended family to the nuclear family. Individualism (as opposed to individuality) was considered selfish and antithetical to the broader interests of a unit. Whether societies were matrilineal or patrilineal, nearly all were patriarchal (power rested with men). Nonetheless, the glue that bound the communal circle was the woman, considered the life giving force, the bearer of culture, essence of aesthetic beauty and key to a community’s longevity. Mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters etc. had oversight of children until puberty, when male and female rites of passage prepared them separately for their gendered communal roles. West African women were spiritually strong, morally respected, valued for their economic propensity, important in governance and in some cultures (Ashanti, Kongo, Ibo) powerful warriors. However devalued and exploited in America, Modesty, Rit and Minty exemplified how enslaved women resisted a sense of futility or fatalism and refashioned African attributes of beauty, dignity, self-worth and ethics. Enslaved women combed the waterways, forests and woods to obtain roots, herbs, leaves, sap, barks and other medicinal products for healing, amulets and even conjuration. Rit certainly used such remedies to nurse Minty back to health after extreme exhaustion, illnesses, beatings and her near fatal blow on the head. Rit learned these remedies and poultices from her mother Modesty and Harriet Tubman used them on the Underground Railroad. Their example reveals the significance of women to the community and that despite the assaults on the black family; it remained an institution, which even separation could not sever. […]
II ANCHORING THE SPIRIT
A. The Hidden Church: An African-Christian Synthesis.
If community was the base of African and African American life and culture, spirituality was the superstructure. Certainly enslaved people ultimately embraced Christianity. But for generations Southern whites feared exposing blacks to Christianity. The Bible’s Old Testament militant nationalism and New Testament’s spiritual egalitarianism were not lost on African Americans, a few of whom were literate and the majority of whom felt that baptism was one kind of freedom.
Like most enslaved children, young Minty grew up outside of a church. However, since Ben Ross’s owner Anthony Thompson Sr., was a practicing Methodist, Minty’s family heard Christian sermons. But Edward Brodess was not devout and when he separated the Ross family, little Minty was hired out and did not receive white religious benevolence. But a tradition of black religion and spirituality existed independent of whites. In African culture, sacred worship embedded every aspect of life (rites of passage, marriage, funerals, child birth, etc.). Divine reverence was not confined to a building, a single ceremony or a specific day of the week. Spirituality was pervasive, expressive, emotional and evocative. Although the religious culture developed in America had African roots, the ravages of bondage created more social-spiritual convergences. In Minty’s world, spirituality was wrapped in temporal concerns affecting the individual, the family and the community. Worship was praising, praying, lamenting, hoping and drawing strength from each other. Long before Minty’s birth, Africans in America had created a “hidden church” where enslaved people gathered clandestinely (the woods, in cabins, in boats, in white people’s kitchens and even in the fields). In the hidden church they recounted religious and secular experiences; gave testimonies and created a space were women such as Rit could express the pain of having children sold or of trying to bring Minty back to life after her head was bashed in. In the hidden church, enslaved people created subversive songs, prayed for spiritual salvation, heavenly retribution and freedom.
Africans traveling the Maafa brought an ethos that merged the sacred and secular worlds. Enslaved African Americans embraced Christianity but also selectively adapted it to previous traditions and to their historical circumstances. Above all, they rejected incongruous white teachings meant to relegate blacks to perpetual slavery. Rather than being converted to Christianity as taught by whites, enslaved people converted Christianity to their own needs. Moreover, some significant African and Christian traditions had noteworthy commonalities.
Africans, like Christians believed in one God (Nzambi among the Bantu, Onyame among the Akan-Ashanti for example) who was the apex of all existence just as humanity was the center of earthly life. While gendered concepts of the African Supreme Being varied, like Jehovah, Africans’ God was revered, all-powerful and approachable. However, unlike Jehovah, the African Supreme Being was not feared, jealous nor wrathful. Other spirits exist in the African pantheon, like saints in Catholicism. But there was only one God. Hence, when whites spoke of a Supreme God, Africans understood. Harriet Tubman’s God was an all-powerful friend. According to Thomas Garrett, her close friend and a beloved Quaker Underground Railroad Conductor, Harriet spoke to God every day of her life. “I never knew anyone so confident of her faith,” said Garrett. (Letter in Bradford)
Africans, like Christians, believed in a soul, sometimes called the “heart” or “voice.” The soul was responsible for human behavior in life and was one’s spiritual existence after death. Some ethnicities had complicated concepts of the soul; others simply recognized the soul as the “little me in the big me” which lived on. Africans believed in honoring this life after death, especially as part of the kinship spiritual connection (ancestor reverence), which brought protection to the living. The curse of the dead was much dreaded in Africa and in America. Hence the importance of burial and funeral rites throughout the Diaspora, even today. A woman such as Harriet Tubman who embraced Christianity, also blended a spiritual syncretism that constructed a concept of the soul around moral ethics and faith imparted through the word of God, “as spoken to her soul” according to her friend Garrett. “She is a firm believer in spiritual manifestations . . . she never goes on her missions of mercy without his (God’s) consent.” (Garrett to Eliza Wigham, in McGowan, 135)
Water was a life giving force in African culture and the spirit world was under water. Throughout the African Diaspora, water represented divine transformations—birth, death, baptism and rebirth. For many enslaved people, accepting Christianity carried implications reminiscent of older traditions that surpassed what whites intended. In African cultures, an initiate received a “sacred bath” following a special protracted rite of passage symbolizing acceptance and integration into the community. Similarly, with Christianity enslaved people sought salvation through isolation, prayer, meditation, and communication with God through visions and signs from the natural environment. Baptism by total immersion represented final acceptance into the “ark of safety.” Although Methodists baptized by sprinkling, enslaved people insisted on going “down under” the water. They also equated spiritual transformation with secular change. Such thinking was Christian because the New Testament upheld spiritual egalitarianism. It was also African: One traveled briefly into the watery world of the ancestors as an uncivil “little spirit of the bush” full of individualistic anti-communal tendencies. One emerged from the water as a citizen of the community able to partake of all rights and privileges. The change was both divine and temporal; it was fervent, overwhelming and thoroughgoing. Canals, marshes, swamps and rivers surrounded African descended people on the Eastern Shore. Here they labored as slaves. Here they were baptized and hence constantly reminded of water’s spiritual and liberating significance.
Minty’s Christian conversion experience probably happened while working for the Stewarts in Caroline County. Whether because of that experience or her blow on the head, Minty insisted she spoke to God, had trances and saw visions that foretold future events. As a clairvoyant, Minty believed that she inherited this second sense from her father, Ben. Africans and African Americans believed that a clairvoyant person was born with a “caul” or “veil,” a portion of the birth membrane that remained on the head. They were seers and visionaries who communicated with the supernatural world and were under a special spiritual dispensation. Visions sometimes came while Minty worked, were accompanied by music and articulated in a different language. Minty also claimed exceptional power. When Edward Brodess sent slave traders to Ben’s cabin to inspect Minty, she prayed for God to cleanse Brodess’s heart and make him a good man or kill him. Brodess’ death convinced Minty that she had “prayed him to death.”1 Since his death put her in eminent danger of sale, Minty knew it was a sign from God to flee.
Northerners called Ben “a full-blooded Negro.” His parents were probably African born and told him the old Maafa adage that he passed on to Minty: some Africans could fly. Indeed, captured Ibo people committed suicide believing that their spirits flew back to Africa.2 Similarly, as Minty envisioned her escape, “She used to dream of flying over fiefs and towns, and rivers and mountings, looking down upon them ‘like a bird.'” When it appeared as if her strength would give out and she could not cross the river, “there would be ladies all dressed in white over there, and they would put our their arms and pull me across.” Listening to Ben’s stories, predictions and sharing his faith convinced Minty that an omniscient force protected her. In visions, she became a disembodied spirit observing earthly and heavenly scenes. Harriet Tubman told friends that God “called” her to activism against her wishes. She begged God to “get someone else” but to no avail. Since God called her, she depended on God to guide her away from danger.