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Beyond the "Moses" myths: two new biographies examine who Harriet Tubman really was.

Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories

by Jean M. Humez University of Wisconsin Press November 2003 $45.00, ISBN 0-299-19120-6

Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom

by Catherine Clinton Little, Brown and Company, February 2004 $25.95, ISBN 0-316-14492-4

The "peculiar institution" of American slavery ended less than 150 years ago, endured for more than three centuries and claimed millions of black lives before it was finally abolished. Yet the war against slavery in the United States began long before 1865, and went way beyond public antislavery efforts. In fact, the earliest forms of resistance began with the enslaved themselves.

Of all those who labored on their behalf, Harriet Tubman was remarkable--not only because of her decision to emancipate herself or because she defied commonly held stereotypes regarding women and African Americans, but because she risked her own safety repeatedly to bring others to freedom. Yet few people know the hall extent of her achievements, and fewer still are familiar with the more intimate details of her history.

Like many ex-slaves, Tubman never learned how to read of write. A dynamic speaker, she played a significant role in shaping her public image, but the earliest renderings of her story were subject to the biases of her white biographers. Years later, although historical scholarship on individual African Americans and the larger black community has moved into the academic mainstream, Tubman's legacy remains largely unexplored. To many, her story is little more than an oft-told, romantic folktale, and there have been few serious studies of her life--until now.

With their new biographies, Jean M. Humez, a professor of women's studies and author of Harriet Tubman: The Life and Life Stories, and Catherine Clinton, a renowned historian and author of Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, attempt to recreate historically accurate, complex and complete portraits of the woman who was best known as the "Moses" of her people.

Harriet Tubman: The Life and Life Stories may be the most comprehensive book on Tubman to date. Humez follows Tubman through slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and her final years, with careful attention to the facts and minimal embellishment. Humez discusses Tubman's role as a storyteller, and in subsequent chapters, pays close attention to Tubman's words as they were presented by her early biographers and in her letters to family and friends. Humez's book is extremely well researched, and her writing is both incisive and accessible, making it an excellent resource for students as well as for the general reader, interested in learning more about Tubman's life of black women's roles in antislavery activism.

In Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, Catherine Clinton first introduces the reader to the world in which Harriet Tubman lived. As a result, the book becomes as much an abbreviated social history of American slavery and antislavery movements as it is the story of one woman's struggle. Clinton also challenges conventional accounts of Tubman's life, using traditional scholarship, as well as family lore to construct a thoughtful and engaging narrative about an ordinary woman and her most extraordinary accomplishments.

Editors' Note: Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero by Kate Clifford (Ballantine Books, January 2004) was received by BIBR too late to include in this review.

Denise Simon has worked with several magazines as a writer and/or fact checker, including Business Week, Honey and The Nation. A recent graduate of the Columbia Publishing Course, Simon volunteers with a writing group for teenage girls and serves as an editor for the Urban Film Journal. She is also a story analyst, and has worked with NYU's Department of Dramatic Writing. For BIBR's NONFICTION REVIEWS, Simon examines two recent biographies of abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

--Reviewed by Denise Simon Denise Simon is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York.
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Title Annotation:Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories & Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom
Author:Simon, Denise
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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