Author Interview: Tiya Miles on Empowering the Memory of Harriet Tubman

By Blake Maddux

Many of us think of Harriet Tubman as a lone heroic figure. But the truth is she was never alone; she did things that other people did not do.

Dr. Tiya Miles currently serves as the Michael Garvey Professor of History at Harvard University, from which she collected her bachelor’s in Afro-American Studies in 1992. (She is also a graduate of Middlesex School.)

Among her several prize-winning books is 2021’s All the Things She Carried, whose numerous honors include the National Book Award for Nonfiction.

The widespread recognition that the Cincinnati native has garnered — for example, a 2011 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Award” — has done nothing to tempt Miles to rest on her laurels. Not only did she leave her position at the University of Michigan only a few years after being named University Professor, but she will soon have published two books in the wake of All the Things She Carried.

The one of these that is currently available is Night Flyer: Harriet Tubman and the Faith Dreams of a Free People (Penguin Random House).

In this volume, Miles stressing the necessity of “revising some of the ways we have preferred to see [Tubman] in histories and popular depictions: as a solitary figure, as a superhero, as a superhuman wielder of mysterious power — a composite set of characteristics that reached a campy apotheosis in the comic representation of Harriet Tubman as a literal demon slayer.”

By failing to do so, “we diminish her in memory and reduce our capacity to learn from her life.”

Miles spoke with me by phone in advance of her June 20 visit to Porter Square Books.

The Arts Fuse: Has your interest in history been a lifelong one?

Tiya Miles: No, not at all. When I was in high school, I disliked history. No offense to any of my teachers, but I found history to be boring. I thought of it as a task-related subject in which I had to just memorize a bunch of facts. That was not a skill of mine.

I also found history to be very uncomfortable at times, especially when slavery was discussed. I attended a high school where there was a teeny-tiny Black student population. The was after I left Walnut Hills [in Cincinnati] and went to Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts. When the topic of slavery was brought up, all eyes would turn, and I felt so exposed and uncomfortable. So those were not good experiences, and I associated all of that with history.

AF: How far back does your interest in Harriet Tubman go?

TM: I was, of course, aware of her for my whole life, because who isn’t! But in 2005, I started to have a particular kind of awareness of her. That was the result of a conversation with a colleague, an environmental sociologist at Michigan named Dorceta Taylor [now at Yale]. She told me that Harriet Tubman had to have been an environmentalist. I thought, “What?!” She said that she would have had to read the woods to navigate and make her escapes. That comment sat with me at a time when I was becoming much more aware of the concern about environmental issues. This conversation planted a seed.

AF: Did this newfound awareness lead directly to a decision to write a book about her?

Tiya Miles. Photo: Stephanie Mitchell

TM: I had thought that I might write a book about the environment on the Underground Railroad. But the opportunity came my way to write a biography for this new series that Henry Louis Gates Jr. is editing. That format seemed a way for me to return to this interest in Harriet Tubman through an environmental lens.

AF: You describe Harriet Tubman as “singularly special and part of a cultural collective.” How was she both?

TM: I wanted to move the needle past where many of us are with regard to Harriet Tubman, in which we think of her as this lone heroic figure. Actually, she was never alone, but did things that other people did not do.

I landed on a very common phrase that I found quite helpful, simply, “one of a kind.” It allowed me to say both things at once. Yes, she was her own person with particular attributes and strengths, as well as the circumstances that led her to make certain choices. But she was also of a kind: Black women who had a very strong religious belief and who were enslaved or indentured servants. It was an intense religiosity that led them to things that were countercultural for their time, incredibly bold, and very risky.

Tubman was part of a cohort of women whose worldview said that God was steering them, and that they needed to do God’s work in the world and answer this call which God had placed upon them, and that in doing it, they were following God’s directions. These women all felt this and acted in accordance.

AF: You describe Tubman as having been “eerily smart.” To what do you attribute her being so, despite having not been formally educated?

TM: Even as I started collecting things about her years ago, I didn’t really think of her as being among Black women intellectuals. I thought of her as an activist. Yet she was also a deep thinker, as activists often are. She was constantly interpreting her situation in a way that was very focused and sharp-minded. She talked about her own life with self-reflexiveness, metaphor, and analogy.

She was also quite prayerful, and prayer is a form of intellectual engagement. Harriet Tubman believed herself to be talking to God, and maybe she was! But she was also talking to herself, working out problems, and thinking through possible solutions.

AF: What did you learn about Tubman that demonstrated that she was a human being rather than a superwoman?

TM: One thing that really stuck with me was Tubman’s physicality. That basic notion that she was a material, physical human being. And she was a female-bodied woman, which adds a whole new dimension to the kinds of vulnerabilities she was facing in doing the things that she did.

The fact that she was quite petite matters in terms of understanding the risks she was taking and how the superwoman image just doesn’t cut it. The fact that she suffered from seizures as the result of her temporal lobe epilepsy from the injury from her overseer was an essential part of her physical realness in the world that complicates the picture of a hero. She was dealing with health issues, medical issues, pain, suffering as she carried out these tremendous feats. So what does that mean for how we see her? That was really important for me in terms of breaking down that image.

And another piece of this is that she did not seem to be concerned about her well-being at all. She put her life at risk countless times. She put any concern about her own physical state of being aside. There’s a story in which she gives her undergarments to a poor Black family who had housed her and the people she was helping to escape. She often had terrible toothaches as well.

She didn’t take care of herself, basically. That’s a bit disturbing, right, to think about to what extent is self-sacrifice necessary and even productive, in the end, for people who choose lives of activism. That’s a very important question.

Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to the Arts Fuse, Somerville Times, and Beverly Citizen. He has also written for DigBoston, the ARTery, Lynn Happens, the Providence Journal, The Onion’s A.V. Club, and the Columbus Dispatch. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife and six-year-old twins — Elliot Samuel and Xander Jackson — in Salem, MA.

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