Celebrate Harriet Tubman as an Icon of Black Disability History

To the left is Harriet Tubman. She is a Black woman. She is looking at the camera. She is not smiling, but looks direct and pensive. She is wearing a Victorian outfit. Her hands are crossed together. To the right is text that reads: “Celebrate Harriet Tubman as a Black & Disabled woman. She’s an icon for all especially Marylanders.” logo at bottom
Image Description: To the left is Harriet Tubman. She is a Black woman. She is looking at the camera. She is not smiling, but looks direct and pensive. She is wearing a Victorian outfit. Her hands are crossed together. To the right is text that reads: “Celebrate Harriet Tubman as a Black & Disabled woman. She’s an icon for all especially Marylanders.” logo at bottom

February is Black History Month. If you want to see how Salisbury is celebrating Black History Month, just click here. It includes lots of creative content, a partnership between Fenix Youth INC., and even a focus on locally owned Black small businesses. Love it! Water’s Edge Museum opened this month. Its goal is to tell the stories of Black founding families of the Eastern Shore. It recently also won an award from the Governor’s Office of Service and Volunteerism. Great job, Water’s Edge!

I believe it’s so important to remember during Black History Month the stories of Black Disability history. It can be hard to find these stories. It does not mean that they do not exist. It does not mean that they were not real or that African Americans with disabilities were not living. We have so many leaders in our African American community– whether it be today or then– with disabilities. Disability is a broad identity, as a reminder. African American history is there, just like disability history. 

Look at Dr. Henry Louis Gates, for example, or Harry Belafonte. Disability has always existed. The same way that African Americans are apart of our history— whether it be now or then. I think it’s vastly important to think of our history as one, not of separating identifies. I hope for a day when we will see archives of Disability History and Black Disability History, especially here in Maryland. 

In this post, I want to focus on an icon that is one of the true trailblazers of African American history. Not just here in Maryland, but globally. 

Harriet Tubman.

Harriet was born in Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She was born into slavery and helped others escape slavery via the Underground Railroad. Let’s not forget, she even was a nurse and a spy during the Civil War for the Union. How cool, right? Can you imagine?!

Harriet lived an incredible life. She’s known best for her abolition, humanitarian and suffrage work.  

And she was disabled, too! Did you know that? If you didn’t, it’s okay. Sometimes our media doesn’t always do a good job of portraying or teaching that Harriet was a disabled woman. Sometimes her disability is wrapped into her simply having visions. What does “that” mean exactly? Let’s discuss it.

As a young girl, she sustained a traumatic brain injury. The injury is detailed in the authorized biography of her:

“The overseer caught up a two-pound weight from the counter and threw it at the fugitive, but it fell short and struck Harriet a stunning blow on the head. It was long before she recovered from this, and it has left her subject to a sort of stupor or lethargy at times; coming upon her in the midst of conversation, or whatever she may be doing, and throwing her into a deep slumber, from which she will presently rouse herself, and go on with her conversation or work.”  

BRADFORD, SARAH H. HARRIET TUBMAN, THE MOSES OF HER PEOPLE. SMK Books, 2018. 

After the injury, Harriet began to see what she described as visions from God. It has been interpreted by many the visions that Tubman had after her injury were seizures, not visions as she said. While we can’t know the diagnosis, we do know that she had a brain injury and neurological symptoms. Later in life, she required surgery to alleviate the pain caused by the injury.

Harriet attributed her visions from God as to how she kept safe. She believed these kept her safe while transporting people on the Railroad. Harriet was always adamant that her visions were a guiding light and centric to her work as an abolitionist working on the Underground Railroad. No matter what her visions were (seizures, another neurological disorder caused from her injury, etc): her disability was central in her work. And she didn’t see it as negative.

In summary, we know that she was having episodes caused from her traumatic brain injury (“TBI”) as a young girl that lead to having her neurological episodes. Some people see Harriet’s description of visions as a misdiagnosis, but I think we can look it as a narrative of her choosing — in her own terms — to reclaim her disability and body, as she sees fit and as she chose.

Harriet’s disability is a huge part of her story. She did all of her amazing work as a Black disabled woman. Like most of her life, Harriet was a trailblazer. By seeing her visions as positive and seeing her injury as something that didn’t define her negatively, she helped pave the way for all disabled people, and especially fellow Black disabled people. She defied the barriers of slavery, racism, classism and ableism, and sexism— as she fought for all people. She was a force of nature.

By seeing her disability as something that was apart of her and strengthening, she helped empower people for generations. Her stories are still empowering people to look at their identities with pride. Harriet reclaimed her life on her terms, nobody else. In 2021, her story is one that is empowering for all, especially Black disabled people.

Harriet is an icon of Black Disability History. It’s an honor to live so near to where she resided for a large majority of her life. How lucky we are to have this wonderful connection to her in the state of Maryland.

She managed to escape slavery and free 70 people. When we talk about Maryland women who lead the way, we cannot stop talking about Harriet. She was a person of color, a person with a disability, and a woman who defied odds. All aspects of her identities deserve praise, including her role as a disabled woman. 

Thanks to trailblazers like Harriet for paving the way– for all people. Her legacy is not forgotten.

If you’re interested in virtually visiting the Harriet Tubman and Maryland’s Underground Railroad Tour (safe and accessible to all), you can do so by visiting Eventbrite here. There are lots of links on Youtube too. 

P.S. Keep your eyes posted for one more post on African American-Disability history in honor of BHM! While I regret that this is a little late (darn scheduling), I am still excited to share this. These are stories that are relevant year round!

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