Interest in a statement purportedly uttered by 19th century African-American abolitionist Harriet Tubman was renewed in April 2016 after the U.S. Treasury Department announced that a portrait of the famous American humanitarian would be replacing that of President Andrew Jackson on the front of the U.S. $20 bill:
In 2008, feminist writer Robin Morgan penned an essay intended as a sequel to her famous 1970 “Goodbye to All That” piece. One passage focused on “post-feminism” and used a quote purportedly from Harriet Tubman to suggest that some women don’t realize the fight for equality isn’t over:
Goodbye to women of any age again feeling unworthy, sulking “what if she’s not electable?” or “maybe it’s post-feminism and whoooosh we’re already free.” Let a statement by the magnificent Harriet Tubman stand as reply. When asked how she managed to save hundreds of enslaved African Americans via the Underground Railroad during the Civil War, she replied bitterly, “I could have saved thousands — if only I’d been able to convince them they were slaves.”
While Morgan presented this phrase as an authentic quote from Harriet Tubman, several historical scholars disagreed. The Maxwell Perspective attempted to get to the bottom of the issue in an article published shortly after Morgan’s essay:
Within days, the validity of the quote was called into question by Ralph Luker of the History News Network, who contacted scholars who have researched Tubman—including Milton Sernett, professor emeritus of history at the Maxwell School (and African American studies at SU). Sernett is the author of the recently published Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History.
None could trace the quote to primary sources.
“My impression is that this is a late 20th-century quote from a fictionalized account of Tubman’s life,” Sernett told Luker. “Whoever wishes to use the dubious quote as a political zinger ought to cite a reliable source.”
Likewise, Kate Clifford Larson (author of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero) vowed that the quotation was of recent vintage, and no evidence backed the notion that the abolitionist actually spoke or wrote these words:
There is no original quote for this. This quote was entirely made up, and became popularized starting sometime in the the 1990s. There is no documentation, nor historical basis for this quote.
Rice University professor (and slavery historian) Dr. W. Caleb McDaniel wrote that circulating this particular fake quote is actually harmful both to Tubman’s legacy and to current efforts of anti-slavery activism:
Modern historians know the truth: enslaved people resisted their condition in countless ways, large and small. If they were not able to attain freedom, it was not because they didn’t want it or because (as the fake Tubman quote would have it) they “did not know they were slaves.” It was because powerful forces were arrayed against them. The idea of “tacit consent” distracted attention from that fact.
I worry that the fake Tubman quote could have the same “red herring” effect in conversations about modern trafficking. It encourages activists who quote and read it to believe that the only thing standing between modern slaves and freedom is knowledge, self-awareness, education, and a willingness to actively dissent. But the corollary comes uncomfortably close to the paternalistic idea that those who somehow “choose” not to be freed or don’t “know” they are slaves must tacitly consent to their own exploitation.
It is pleasant to think that the only obstacle abolitionists face is “false consciousness” on the part of trafficked persons. Unfortunately, that idea may encourage true believers in the quote to underrate the power and complexity of the forces arrayed against them today.