Friday, April 29, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Harriet Tubman's fable on colonizing slaves

In the run-up to the American Civil War and the discussion of whether to free the slaves, one proposal that gained some traction was repatriation or colonization--that is, sending black Americans, enslaved and free people alike, back to Africa. And in 1859, Harriet Tubman, the former slave who helped many other slaves escape on the Underground Railroad, used a speech to share her own views on the issue. It happened at a meeting of the New England Colored Citizens' Convention, where the audience had voted to condemn the proposed repatriation.

As the Boston abolitionist paper The Liberator reported, Tubman used a simple fable to counter the argument for sending black Americans back to Africa. She:
...told the story of a man who sowed onions and garlic on his land to increase his dairy productions; but he soon found the butter was strong and would not sell, and so he concluded to sow clover instead. But he soon found the wind had blown the onions and garlic all over his field. Just so, she said, the white people had got the "nigger" here to do their drudgery, and now they were trying to root 'em out and send 'em to Africa. "But," she said, "they can't do it; we're rooted here, and they can't pull us up."
A male proponent of "civilization," as it also was called, jumped on stage to challenge her remarks--a 19th century version of Kanye's "Imma let you finish" interruption of Taylor Swift, perhaps--but the audience wasn't having it. Tubman's story stuck, and got their applause.

In Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero, historian Kate Clifford Larson shares that story and also notes that Tubman was smart politically, and important as a storyteller representing black women at a time when they were rare on the speaking stage:
A great storyteller she was...She moved her audiences deeply. Plainly dressed, very short and petite, quite black-skinned, and missing front teeth, Tubman physically made a stark contrast to Sojourner Truth, one of the most famous former slave women then speaking on the antislavery lecture circuit, who was nearly six feet tall....Like Truth, however, Tubman shocked her audiences with stories of slavery and the injustices of life as a black woman. Black men dominated the antislavery lecture circuit. Tubman and Truth stood for millions of slave women whose lives were marred by emotional and physical abuse at the hands of white men.
Larson's biography of Tubman shares many insights about her public speaking--a skill of Tubman's we have largely forgotten in simplifying her memory and story. To be a woman of color who spoke in public in her time was rare, and challenge after challenge faced her as a speaker. Like Sojourner Truth, she was accused of being a man in part due to her speaking skills. In speeches like this one, she often was not introduced by her real or full name, to build up the mystery and excitement, but also taking away her identity in public, sometimes in the name of protecting her safety. Her words were often rewritten for her by biographers and reporters. Because Tubman herself could not read or write, her spoken word was both powerful and ephemeral. As Larson noted, men more often got the speaking turns on the lecture circuit, despite her unusual story and appeal. Speaking also was essential in her career, a way for Tubman to raise funds and earn an income to support her work and her family.

Today, Tubman's enjoying a revival of interest, thanks to actor Viola Davis quoting her in a 2015 Emmy Awards acceptance speech, and the recent announcement that Tubman's image will appear on the $20 bill in the U.S. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Authenticity counts: It's one thing to listen to, say, a white man talk about colonizing black Americans, and quite another to have a former slave, now a free woman, share her point of view. In this debate, authenticity held the same power it does today for a speaker. With "we're rooted here, and they can't pull us up," Tubman speaks for herself and her people in a way that can't be imitated.
  • Fables and parables work for a reason: These metaphor stories, used for centuries with illiterate audiences, are easy to understand and to remember. A short fable or parable can work far better--and faster--than a long-winded, detailed argument.
  • Choose your metaphor to do many jobs: In addition to the neat package a fable offers the speaker, this one also has the advantage of being based in nature, underscoring the idea that remaining in the U.S. was a natural course of action, as opposed to a contrived solution. Make your metaphors work by testing them first, to be sure they are accomplishing everything you need done in your speech.
A caution to women speakers wishing to quote Tubman: Do your research. Like other famous folk, many quotes are attributed to her without any evidence that she actually said them.