The most famous of the African-American abolitionists, Frederick Douglass, said about anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman:
“Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement … You, on the other hand, have laboured in a private way. I have wrought in the day – you in the night. The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism.”
Tubman dedicated her long life to the liberation of Black slaves: helping them to escape their masters, organising public resistance and even leading battalions in the US Civil War.
She was born into slavery in 1820 and from a very young age was put to work doing both field and domestic labour. Slaves had control over few aspects of their lives. But to be human is to struggle, and Tubman inherited a sense of defiance from her mother, Rit. When a trader approached Rit’s owner to buy the slave’s youngest son, Moses, she rebelled.
As the trader came toward the slave quarters to seize the child, Rit told him, “You are after my son; but the first man that comes into my house, I will split his head open.” The owner and the trader backed away and abandoned the sale. For Tubman, this rebellion emphasised the possibilities of resistance to the dehumanising practice of slavery.
From an early age, she stood up for others. For her pains, she suffered greatly. In one encounter, Tubman defended another young slave against a beating from his overseer. As the other slave ran to avoid the attack, the overseer threw a brick at him, but came up short. The weight struck Tubman instead. It “broke my skull”, she said.
Bleeding and unconscious, Tubman was returned to her owner’s house and laid on the seat of a loom, where she remained without medical care for two days. She was sent back into the fields “with blood and sweat rolling down my face until I couldn’t see”. This incident left Tubman with permanent brain damage – but it did not deter her.
After marrying, Tubman decided she would escape from her master. She was familiar with the highways, byways, swamps, marshes, farms and lanes of the area and walked 145 kilometres to Pennsylvania. When she crossed the state line, she said, “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
Despite this sense of relief, Tubman did not sit still. She joined the Underground Railroad, and became one of its most successful “conductors”. The Underground Railroad was a route out of the southern slave-owning states, supported by a network of individuals who hid escaped slaves in their homes. Despite the dangers, Tubman made 19 trips into the South and escorted more than 300 slaves to freedom. As she once proudly pointed out: “I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
During the US Civil War, Tubman became the first woman to lead an armed foray against the Confederate forces. Her courage was on display. In a daring raid on a collection of plantations along the Combahee River in South Carolina, Tubman freed 700 slaves.
The rest of Tubman’s life was devoted to defeating slavery and fighting for equality. Despite increasing physical frailty, she was a tireless rebel and took up the campaign for women’s suffrage with vigour.
She died as she lived, penniless, brave, human and defiant.
Revolutions happen only in places with repressive regimes and extreme poverty. They don’t happen in economically advanced, democratic countries like Australia. Most people think this. But is it right? Recent history might seem to suggest so—social revolutions are practically unheard of in the West. There are, however, a number of reasons why revolution in Australia is possible.
The billionaires have had it too good for too long. CEO salaries are up more than 40 percent in a year, while living standards for everyone else are getting smashed. Decade after decade, under both major parties, the rich have gotten richer while everyone else struggles. And the politicians run Victoria like it’s their own private cash machine.
Women’s oppression looks quite different today than 60 years ago. Women’s rights are more accepted now, women are a bigger part of the workforce, contraception and abortion are legal in much of the world. There are more women world leaders and CEOs than ever before. At the same time, the vast majority of women, even in a wealthy country like Australia, are still paid less on average than men, still do most of the unpaid child care and other domestic labour in the home and still have to contend with demeaning sexist stereotypes.
Imperialist occupation has always generated resistance. Time and again, oppressed people have risen up heroically to drive out occupying armies. But heroism isn’t always enough: the politics of the resistance frequently make the difference between victory and defeat.
Western Australian public sector workers will rally at the state parliament on 17 August to demand that wages keep up with the cost of living. The rally, organised by the Public Sector Alliance of nine trade unions, follows several stop-work rallies held at WA hospitals over the last month, involving thousands of health workers.
The whole country is talking about Labor’s Climate Change Bill. But there’s nothing there.