[Details on a live performance of “The Spirit of Harriet Tubman” 0n June 27 are below. Spread the word!]
During much of the 1850s, Harriet Tubman, felt almost like a prisoner. She lived in Canada, just a few miles west of the U. S. border at Niagara Falls. She was safe there, but itchy to help more enslaved people to escape.
And today, Diane Faison of Winston-Salem, NC, knows something of how Harriet felt.
Tubman, the Ace of the Underground Railroad, was a hunted woman. Southern slavecatchers wanted her dead or alive. She had secretly returned to the state to aid others several more times.
Diane Faison’s journey with Harriet started 140 years later, when she knocked a book off a library shelf.
Harriet’s missions became much more dangerous in these years, after Congress passed the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. It permitted Southern slave catchers to snatch escaped Black people anywhere in the country and return them to bondage, with U. S. government protection for their hunts. The act also criminalized helping escapees on the Underground Railroad.
Diane Faison also felt an itch, in 1988. She was a teacher in Farmville, Virginia, and as she recalled, in the book, Passing the Torch:
When I started thinking about February, I got a bit restless. I liked to do things with my students that were different. But in Black History Month, very often the observance came down to students reading something and writing a report. Suddenly that sounded too dry. I wanted something unique.
So, I went to the library. This was still the old days, when libraries had shelves full of books. And when I came to the Black history shelf, my hand brushed a book and it fell to the floor.
I picked it up. The title was, The Life of Harriet Tubman.
Of course, I knew about her. Or so I thought. But I turned the pages anyway.
As I read about her this time, something came over me. I felt as though, this is me. I felt I was being encouraged to be Harriet’s vessel to tell her story, to embody it. (I’m a Quaker, and Quakers call this a leading; for me, that’s what it was.) I felt I had to show the students who this woman was. Such a small person (only about five feet tall) but with such a huge courage.
The idea began to grow in my mind. I went home, researched old photos of Harriet, and finally found one that I could come to resemble with a carefully selected costume.
I had older relatives who still talked in something like the old slave dialect; I had heard it all my life. So, I felt that’s how Harriet talked. And it came naturally to me as her voice, I didn’t even have to study that part.
Also I never wrote a script. After all these years, I’ve never had one. I read about her, I felt it, and I spoke it.
I was following the tradition of my people, of just telling her story, not reading it. But I keep learning about Harriet.
I don’t rehearse either, not really. But sometimes in daily life, like washing the dishes, Harriet comes and starts speaking a new line, or working on an older one, or a gesture.
Every year I find out something new about her . . . .
After that first performance in 1988, I began to get requests to perform at other schools, in schools in several surrounding counties. This was very fulfilling to me.
Diane begins her performances by announcing: “I am the Spirit of Harriet Tubman.” (You can watch a new 60-second video “teaser” here.)
Or at least she did, several hundred times, until the pandemic.
Since then, Diane has been as hemmed in as Harriet omce was by the blinding Canadian blizzards.
There have also been deaths in Diane’s family, health issues, plus the Coronavirus pandemic lockdowns.
With schools, theaters and community centers all closed, Diane has not “trod the boards” as Harriet for much too long. And she doesn’t like to admit it, but she’s not getting any younger. She’s feeling that itch too.
But with a new summer, new vaccines, and new faces in Washington, Diane hopes things are turning up: Harriet Tubman is back on track to be featured on the twenty dollar bill. And maybe a big military base will soon be renamed “Fort Harriet Tubman.”
It could happen. Hey, it should happen. When the Civil War started, Tubman soon left Canada, and headed south to join the Union Army. She worked as an Army spy, a scout, and even led a significant combat raid in South Carolina that freed several hundred enslaved people.
After all, while she had worked with many Quakers, and was good friends with Lucretia Mott, Tubman was no pacifist. Harriet carried a pistol on her underground journeys. As she said to her first biographer,
“I had reasoned this out in my mind. There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty, or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive . . . .”
In the war, it seemed as if she did almost everything: Frederick Douglass’s son Lewis, in an all-Black regiment in South Carolina, wrote home that he had seen her there twice.
The first time, Tubman was leading a commando unit on hush-hush missions. Then, after Lewis Douglass was wounded, he woke up in a field hospital to find Tubman in charge.
Yes, there’s lots more for Diane Faison to tell as Harriet Tubman. As the virus recedes, Diane hopes schools, colleges and community centers will start clicking on her website and calling her again.
That itch won’t go away, and there’s only one way to scratch it.
Don’t Miss out! Harriet Tubman “Live”! FREE!
LIve & By Zoom: Harriet Tubman will be at Spring Friends Meeting in Snow Camp NC on Sunday June 27!
Our Friend Diane Faison will perform her acclaimed presentation as “The Spirit of Harriet Tubman” live and in person at Spring Friends Meeting (and the performance will also be streamed live via Zoom).
Diane has offered this gripping original presentation as Harriet hundreds of times. Visitors are welcome and the program is free of charge.
The performance will start at 10:45 a.m. (after an abbreviated meeting for worship). It will be followed by discussion and Q & A until noon, with fellowship and light refreshments after that.
To Join via ZOOM: To join via ZOOM you are asked to register with this form no later than June 23. The performance will not be recorded.
See you there — and spread the word!