I have gotten a good part of my Harriet Tubman story drafted in my notebook over the past several days. I’m trying to relate to her story through my own experiences and it’s a challenge!
How can I relate my story to Harriet Tubman or to the story of any slave? Can I relate my story the story of a slave torn away from her parents, her children, her husband and sold off to a cotton plantation in Texas? The comparison would be lame, a sad attempt at making a connection. Of course I can’t comprehend the almost complete lack of agency or control that slaves in America experienced. As a child I had little or no control over my life, but I had people who loved and cared for me and saw me as a person, not as a possession, not as a cow or a hog or a mule. We treat out pets and livestock today better than many white southerners treated enslaved human beings.
And yet my own experience of isolation and alienation and diaspora are all I have to help me understand the experience of enslaved Africans and their progeny in US history. And so I will attempt to empathize through experiences that were not shared and barely similar but that give me, through my own life, a tiny window to peek through to see the pain of others.
I know how hard it is to track down my roots. Hours spent on ancestry.com, emails sent back and forth to long-lost cousins–cousins who were never lost to anyone but me, apparently, but who were mostly ignored by my parents. Diaspora–separation. It has pain built into it. And yet so many Europeans chose to leave. So many Americans have no sense of belonging to a place–I among them. I am only slightly tied to the place of my birth and childhood, and with no desire to ever belong there again. I can, I always could, go back whenever I want(ed) to. I had that freedom, and I almost always had the money to get there. I ran away, I left, by choice.
Harriet Tubman ran away by necessity. She returned to Maryland 12 or 13 times to rescue her relatives and friends. She brought perhaps 70 people to freedom in what came be called the Underground Railroad. She reconnected with her family as rescuer. I reconnected with mine as Facebook friends. I am nothing like Harriet Tubman and I would never claim to be. I am just using my life and feelings to help me understand hers. We are, after all, both human, both women.
The connections we can easily imagine stretch only a short distance into the past or the future–our great grandparents, our great grandchildren are at the borders of our imagination. Our personal touches may not stretch so far back or forward. I know my grandparents; I have no children. We know who Harriet Tubman’s mother and father were, and even the name of her African-born grandmother. Tubman had an adopted daughter.
I can imagine–with the help of family stories and photographs–the parents and grandparents my own grandparents knew. I can imagine our family stretching into the future through my nieces, nephew, and cousins. But in the center, in the nucleus, there are only the few who have surrounded me since birth, who will surround me till death. I picture us in the yoke of one egg, the other eggs in the nest becoming the cousins.
I have searched two branches of my family tree back to the time of the US Civil War. My family was not here when Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery, when she traveled secretly to Maryland to rescue her family, when she became a nurse and spy in the Union army. My grandfather’s grandparents, Marcus and Esther Malbin, were born in Russia in 1863 and 1864. Tzivia Charnow, my grandmother’s grandmother, was born in Belarus in 1857. Her father was likely a tailor or a merchant in a town, a shtetl, not allowed to own land as Jew. She came to New York around the turn of the century. My father’s ancestors were probably serfs, peasants, in the Lithuanian countryside. When they were freed in 1861, they may have been able to buy land, if they had any money.
I don’t feel any responsibility for slavery in the USA. When my ancestors were being persecuted in Russia at the time of the Civil War. Yet because of how I look, the color of my eyes, the paleness of my skin, the smooth locks of my hair, the narrowness of my nose, I am privileged in the United States today. My ancestors came here for a better life and, although they didn’t find it for themselves, I benefit from their decision. I exist only because of their decision–the decision to leave everything they knew behind, to become (for my mother’s family, not the first time) part of a diaspora.
African Americans are part of a diaspora, too, but it was not their choice. And it certainly did not lead to a better life.
That’s all for now. I don’t know if any of these two blog posts will be part of my article for Stories In Stitches 5 or not.