The Messengers of History

by Fallon Ward

History, or at least the concept of telling history, right now is in a strange paradoxical argument where different sides of the isle are splitting history into threads of truths, facts, fictions, realities, lies, and misconceptions all while being a part of history making. Who the story tellers are has also come into question. Whether those who pass on history are reliable or biased and what the nature of their connection to their history subject is valid enough for them to even discuss the matter.

Within the “Documenting the American South”, a digital archive sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the catalog attempts to make collections of narratives of slaves, autobiographical or biographical, known. In the collection is biographies of Harriet Tubman, the legendary escaped slave who saved slaves during the 19th century, all written by Sarah H. Bradford. Bradford, an American female author, spent a long time with Tubman, having a correspondence where Tubman told the author about her entire life. In Bradford’s 1886 book Harriet: The Moses of Her People, the second edition available on DocSouth’s archive, she spends majority of the preface expressing her personal admiration for Tubman.

“Her name deserves to be handed down to posterity, side by side with the names of Jeanne D’Arc, Grace Darling, and Florence Nightingale, for not one of these women, noble and brave as they were, has shown more courage, and power of endurance, in facing danger and death to relieve human suffering, than this poor black woman, whose story I am endeavoring in a most imperfect way to give you.” (4)

Bradford tries to establish Tubman’s legitimacy in a lineage of famous female heroes like Joan of Arc and Florence Nightingale. It shows true respect for her subject but also a bias. Bradford does state the Tubman is a “poor black woman” but despite the socio-economic downfalls of Tubman’s inheritance of being born into brutal slavery, her courageous actions in the face of danger surpass that of the white female heroines that Bradford compares Tubman too. In this passage, Bradford titters on a balance of historical reliability. Like aforementioned, she spent a long time with Tubman to properly document her life and story but in that close correspondence, a relationship develops.

“For the satisfaction of the incredulous (and there will naturally be many such, when so strange a tale is repeated to them), I will here state that so far as it has been possible, I have received corroboration of every incident related to me by my heroic friend. I did this for the satisfaction of others, not for my own. No one can hear Harriet talk, and not believe every word she says. As Mr. Sanborn says of her, “she is too real a person, not to be true.”” (pg. 5)

Again, another effort to legitimize Tubman’s life by providing that Bradford took all the information that’s in Harriet: The Moses of Her People from the direct source but it gets complicated because she refers to her subject as “my heroic friend”. Bradford is one of the primary sources on Harriet Tubman and her life but how true can her reporting be? Is Bradford’s friendship, a white woman, corrupting the reality of Tubman’s experiences, of a black slave woman, for a primarily white audience to read about in 1886? Is she possibly changing aspects of Tubman to make her appear presentable to a white reading? Also, still contained in the preface, Bradford includes a letter written to her by Oliver Johnson in which he praises Bradford for writing down Tubman’s story. Within that letter, Johnson mentioned that during the first publication of Harriet, the money Bradford received was given to Tubman.

“I [Johnson] regret to hear that she is poor and ill, and hope the sale of your book will give her the relief she so much needs and so well deserves.” (8)

The relationship between Bradford and Tubman is clearly a real friendship. But can a friend truly historically document you? Does Bradford portray facts or her reality? This not meant to be a criticism of Bradford. She gives Tubman the respect she deserves and history knows her story because of her biographies. But while searching through DocSouth’s archive, the question of authenticity comes up often. There’s biographies where slaves tell their story to white authors, former slaves write their own stories, fictionalized stories of black men and women that all have some propaganda laced within, language barriers, and many unidentified figures. Where does history draw the line between truths, realities, and facts and can a line even be drawn?

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