In 2008, at the height of the presidential primary contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the feminist writer Robin Morgan wrote an opinion column criticizing women who failed to support Clinton. To support her case, she turned to an unlikely source: the abolitionist icon Harriet Tubman. Morgan wrote:
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.’ [Emphasis added.]
The trouble with the quote was that Tubman never said it, as historians rushed to point out. Tubman expert Milton Sernett called it a twentieth-century fabrication, and Tubman biographer Kate Clifford Larson listed it as a fake quote on her page of “Myths and Facts” about Tubman.
Despite these corrections by scholars, however, the quote continues to haunt the Internet. It shows up in a prominent sidebar when you search for the abolitionist’s name on Google, which only knows to report what is most popular on webpages. It appears regularly on Twitter. It has been circulated recently by prominent figures like Senator Cory Booker and New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow.
In recent years, however, I’ve noticed that supporters of the modern anti-trafficking movement are major sources of the fake quote’s popularity online, particularly activists who are concerned about sex trafficking. As of March 22, 2016, the Love146 website listed it prominently on its page about reporting trafficking. (Update: Love146 removed the quote shortly after the publication of this post.) The Araminta Freedom Initiative, which focuses on child sex trafficking and takes its name from Tubman, also features the fake quote on its site. So does The Justice Project on a sidebar to its page about forced prostitution. Another group provides the fake quote with the additional hashtag “#educationiskey.” Other examples are plentiful.
In one sense, these findings are not surprising. The Internet is a fake quote emporium; just ask Thomas Jefferson. Moreover, Harriet Tubman’s story has from the beginning been a malleable icon who has been made to say what various groups wanted her to say.
As Jean Humez shows in her book, Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories, this began with the very first abolitionists, who were responsible both for recording the illiterate Tubman’s own narratives and for crafting the first biographies. Those biographies are invaluable points of access into Tubman’s life and thought. But, Tubman scholars now agree, they also contained a variety of embellishments that served abolitionists’ purposes. Over time some of those embellishments (like the idea that Tubman took 19 trips back to the South and freed 300 people) became settled facts in collective memory, enshrined in children’s books and other scholarly texts as Tubman’s actual story receded from view.
In other words, a fake quote attributed to Tubman is nothing new. It’s more of the same where the public discourse around Tubman is concerned.
Yet as a historian of slavery and abolition, I have always found this particular fake quote to be particularly insidious. The idea it expresses even seems perilously close to proslavery ideology as it existed in the early American republic. In his book, In the Name of the Father, Francois Furstenberg shows that many paternalist masters in the founding generation rationalized their slaveholding with the idea of “tacit consent.” Having just overthrown a government to which they did not consent, American patriots told themselves that if enslaved people did not rise up and resist, they must consent tacitly to their enslavement.
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.
For over 150 years, Tubman’s own, actual words have faced an uphill battle to be heard over the noise of other people’s words about her. This is partly because of archival gaps and silences that make it difficult to listen to the enslaved in the past. But historians of American abolitionism know that even well-intentioned abolitionists sometimes played a role in silencing the voices of those they were trying to rescue.
To be sure, abolitionists made heroic, valuable efforts to surface the stories of enslaved Americans and place them before the public. As I’ve argued before, historians would know far less than we do about enslaved people’s experience were it not for the antislavery movement. But formerly enslaved abolitionists like Frederick Douglass sometimes felt pressure to say only the things that white abolitionists wanted audiences to hear. The fake quote that some have put in the mouth of Harriet Tubman risks taking that ventriloquism a step further, while at the same time casting an immediate doubt on whatever someone considered a slave might actually say.
After all, assuming from the beginning that someone doesn’t even know she is a slave does not prepare us to hear what that person really knows.
All of this would be an academic point if abolitionism and slavery really were things of the distant past. But if, as modern abolitionists declare, enslaved people remain in our world, then it is imperative for us to listen—actually listen—to their own stories and testimonies, even or especially when the people presumed to be unfree are saying something different than we expect. Sometimes, as Laura Murphy has shown, listening will call our attention to horrors that desperately need solutions, just as the first stories Harriet Tubman told called abolitionists to arms. At other times, listening will challenge our assumptions and redirect our efforts in new directions or even force us to reconsider our approach.
Either way, historians against slavery should be the first to urge fellow activists to listen to what the marginalized and unfree say that they know, instead of rushing to assume things about what they don’t know. And, for the same reason, historians should also be vigilant in correcting misrepresentations of past abolitionists in the present. We need to ensure that we listen to what abolitionists like Harriet Tubman actually said and call out fake quotes that say more about us than them.