I looked at my hands to see if I was still the same person now, free. There was such splendor about it all, the sun was golden through the trees and golden on the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.” This is how Harriet Tubman recalls the moment when she was 29 years old in 1849 crossed the border into Pennsylvania and became a free man.
Tubman is a celebrity in the US because she first freed herself and later other slaves. The African-American writer Ann Petry (1908-1997) wrote about Tubman’s story in her 1955 novel, subtitled “Escape Worker on the Underground Railroad. From Slavery to Freedom”. Her touching book has now been published in German for the first time.
Translator Hella Reese has carefully adapted Petry’s language to today’s requirements, especially when it comes to the non-white population. Petry had worked as a pharmacist before moving to New York, where she worked as a journalist and became known in 1946 for her novel The Street, which was published two years ago in a new German translation.
The fact that her heroine, Harriet Tubman, was freed was thanks to the legendary “Underground Railroad”, a network of humanistically minded farmers and Quakers who, using coded communication, cover addresses and secret hiding places, smuggled slaves from the southern states in small stages from station to station to the north .
Tubman had to abort a first attempt to escape. In the successful second attempt, she was mainly out and about at night and orientated herself on the North Star. But when she arrived in Pennsylvania, she felt like a “stranger in a strange land”.
Nobody expected her. Tubman longed for her family on the Maryland plantation. She returned to the south several times and helped more than 300 slaves escape to freedom. Her alias was “Moses,” after the biblical prophet who led his people out of bondage. Tubman even enlisted in the Union Army, serving as a scout and spy until the end of the Civil War. She never got a pension for it.
Ann Petry tells the story of a brave girl who experiences the injustices of slavery very early on. Already at the age of six she is “rented out” for work, she toils on the plantation field, in the forest and in the household. She is treated like a commodity, but she also sees resistance gradually growing. Tales of slave rebellions circulate at secret gatherings.
Because Tubman could not read or write, everything that is known about her comes from secondary sources, from what others said about her. Her courage has often been praised. As a teenager, she suffered a head injury for refusing to help an overseer tie up an escaped slave.
The scene took place in a general store where Harriet had been sent to shop. The warden threw a two pound weight from the counter at the fugitive and hit Harriet. The slave managed to escape – a decisive experience in Tubman’s life. Later, as an escape helper, she repeatedly motivated her protégés to endure hardships, to keep going, and never to give up
Ann Petry shows what courageous people can do when they have a goal in mind. The novel is a testament to a depressing chapter in American history, whose shadows reach into the Black Lives Matter present.