By: Emily Zwolfer
My cultural artifact is a poem written by one of the most famous African American poets, Langston Hughes. He wrote this poem about Harriet Tubman, specifically her role as a conductor of the Underground Railroad. Tubman was a bondswoman who escaped slavery and became an individual abolitionist, known most famously for her work in the Railroad, also known as the “Freedom Train.”
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland, to the birth name Araminta Harriet Ross. She met many kinds of owner abuse and punishments, including multiple lashings, and even a two-pound lead weight to her head. This severe injury caused a lifetime of narcoleptic episodes, seizures, and serious headaches, as well as gave Tubman yet another reason to rebel against slavery. By the time Tubman was 30, about half of the African Americans on the Maryland shoreline had been freed, and in 1844, she married John Tubman, a free black man (Biography.com Editors). Unfortunately, marrying someone whom was free did not guarantee her own freedom. So when Tubman’s master died, she fled to Philadelphia before his inheritance practices could be put in place. She initially left alongside her two brothers, but when they were noticed missing, they had second thoughts and returned back to the plantation. Though Harriet assured their safety back home, she knew that this was her chance for a life she could have a choice in, and didn’t look back. She used the network known as the Underground Railroad to travel the 90 miles to Philadelphia, and upon reaching the free state, exclaimed, “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven” (Biography.com Editors). This famous quote captures the full magnitude of Tubman’s newfound, deserved freedom that she met at the end of her journey.
This was not actually the end of Harriet Tubman’s journey, however, or this blog would be significantly shorter. Due to this transcendental experience, Tubman continued to give herself to the Freedom Train, becoming its most well known conductor. Instead of remaining safe in the North, Tubman dedicated her life to rescuing other fugitives in slavery, beginning with her family. She made a total of 19 trips into the South to rescue fugitives, bringing around 300 slaves to freedom (Biography.com Editors). She even remained active in the Civil War as a cook and nurse for the Union Army. Harriet Tubman was a hardcore, bad-to-the-bone woman, which allowed her to be recognized as an individual in history, a feat on its own, but a monumental one as an African American woman.
The Underground Railroad, or “Freedom Train,” that is depicted by Langston Hughes in the poem was not an actual railroad, nor was it underground at all. Its activities of smuggling slaves out of the South had to be carried out in secret for obvious reasons, generally in darkness, so a railroad became the motif of this act. There were multiple routes, known as lines, stops were stations, and those who aided these fugitives were called conductors, such as Harriet Tubman. It was actually a vast network of people (mostly black, but some white) that helped aid the fugitives, creating an operation that was eventually referred to as the “Underground Railroad” (PBS.org). The Train extended through 14 Northern states and made its way all the way to Canada, known as the “promised land” because slave-owners could not legally arrest the slaves outside of the country (Eric Foner and John A. Garraty).
In the poem, Hughes thoroughly examines the era of slavery in which the Underground Railroad was created by writing this poem as if it were from the eyes of Harriet Tubman. He describes the Railroad going “way down in Dixie” to rescue the slaves of the South, which Tubman not only escaped through, but also helped others to freedom (Hughes). He mentions the system of segregation, with Tubman wondering if this Freedom Train will have “stations marked COLORED and WHITE” (Hughes). A significant note is that Tubman questions multiple times if there will, in fact, be any segregation on the Train. It’s obvious that this is hard to picture, a picture of true freedom. Along with the system of slavery, there was rampant racism, unfairness, and violence directed toward African Americans, greatly supported by the Jim Crow Laws. “Freedom ain’t freedom when a man ain’t free,” makes it clear that even with the help of the Train, Tubman will never truly be free with laws set up specifically to restrict the liberties of African Americans (Hughes).
Langston Hughes was one of the most well-respected and renowned writers during the Harlem Renaissance. He grew up as a strong pro-Black and focused more on the poor, resulting in differing opinions than many publicly known African American figures such as W. E. B. Du Bois. He viewed their visions as focusing on assimilating into white society, which he did not believe was fair. Hughes argued, “Black is Beautiful,” and confronted racism and discriminations in his works, influencing other Black writers and artists to do the same and unite the African American community (Gaius Chamberlain). A great attributer to this belief of his, and therefore his works, was that Hughes’ father did not have a positive view of African Americans. Hughes and his father hardly got along, Hughes wanted to become a writer but his father wanted a different path for his son. Once Hughes’ poetry started to become published, however, his father accepted that that was his career path. Due to this paternal animosity, Hughes was more fueled to write poetry of his culture because of the personal ties in proving his success. Not only did Hughes feel the need to change white people’s stereotypical ideas of African Americans, he felt the need to change how they were viewed by each other as well.
Hughes’ poem was created around the 1920s-30s, during the Jim Crow era. This time period was significant for African Americans because it was after slavery had been abolished, but they were still not “free” as discussed in Hughes’ poem. African American culture did blossom after slavery especially with the Harlem Renaissance, creating many famous black writers, musicians, and artists. On the negative side, however, the old slave codes from the days of Harriet Tubman became black codes and Jim Crow Laws. Jim Crow Laws were rigid anti-black, residential segregation laws that perpetuated the types of signs described in the poem (Pittman). They operated mainly between 1876-1965, stretching from Harriet Tubman’s time, far past Langston Hughes’. The Jim Crow Laws were considered a way of life; a racial caste system designed to keep African Americans at the bottom (Kansas Humanities Council).
The poem is significant to the slavery era as well because that is the main setting of the Underground Railroad. During that period, Harriet Tubman and other conductors were making use of the Freedom Train, striving for freedom even though it wasn’t fully attainable in the confines of racial laws. This was the era that the Jim Crow Laws began, stemming from slave codes. These laws touched every bit of everyday life, making it possible for slavery to still essentially exist even after it was finally abolished. The poem does a powerful job of reflecting Tubman’s inner thoughts (of the woman that left her life behind and stood up for what she felt was her duty), which were still questioning the legitimacy of the Underground Railroad. She had trouble imagining a world without signs depicting race, without the possibility of being found after having escaped, without the hate crimes and violence. Someone as resilient as Harriet Tubman was unsure of the possibility of freedom, cementing just how much of a social system slavery was.
The significance of Harriet Tubman and the Freedom Train changed over time. The Railroad originally routed mostly to Northern states, but with the ratification of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, Tubman had to improvise and reroute the journey to Canada, where slavery would automatically be prohibited outside of the country (Biography.com Editors). The Fugitive Slave Law stated that “escaped slaves could be captured in the North and returned to slavery,” which led to many northerners capturing runaway slaves and bringing them back to the South (Biography.com Editors). This made the Underground Railroad trek that much more difficult and long, but not impossible. Harriet Tubman was well respected and widely known during her time in the Freedom Train, and after she died, she was regarded as an icon. Americans struggling for civil rights today are even inspired by her. She has been celebrated many different ways, including naming schools after her. The significance of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad only became more important over time. Tubman stands as a symbol of freedom and fighting for liberty, as does the Railroad and the journey of all the African Americans they brought to freedom.
The poem that I picked relates to many of the forms of resistance that we have learned about in class. First of all, in the poem, the usage of the Underground Railroad itself was a major form of resistance. It helped slaves escape from their plantations in attempt to change their fate. The Railroad allowed slaves a chance to get out of a system of racial hierarchy, as well as the laws supporting it. Secondly, the poem by Langston Hughes was another form of resistance. He wrote it in order to support African Americans, even though this was not a common practice in his time period. It was very popular for other black writers to convince other African Americans that assimilation to the white culture was the best way to be accepted, but Hughes threw this notion out the door. He argued that whites should accept them, but that African Americans should accept themselves as well and embrace their own culture.
I chose a poem as my cultural artifact because I think that poetry is beautiful, and I know that poetry with a purpose, such as Langston Hughes’, makes you feel emotions from the beauty of it. Throughout this course, we have dealt with many topics of emotion, such as scenes from 12 Years A Slave, and readings about child malnutrition and traumatic deaths. All of these topics spoke to me because they made me feel something, and that’s what connects us to history. The fact that we can empathize with people who are no longer around is an amazing characteristic of humans, and I wanted to choose an artifact that continued that idea. This poem focuses on the thoughts of a historical icon, making slavery and the past that much more real and traumatic. The point of feeling this way is so that the struggles in this time period can be understood on some level and built upon in the future.
Biography.com Editors. “Harriet Tubman Biography.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.
Chamberlain, Gaius. “Langston Hughes.” Great Black Heroes. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.
Foner, Eric, and John A. Garraty. “Underground Railroad.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.
Hughes, Langston. Freedom Train. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Print.
Low, Denise, and T. F. Pecore Weso. “Langston Hughes Biography: African-American History: Crossing Boundaries: Kansas Humanities Council.” Langston Hughes Biography: African-American History. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.
Pittman, LaShawnDa (2015). The Great Migration Part 2 [PowerPoint slides].
“The Underground Railroad.” PBS.org. KCTS9, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.
” What Was Jim Crow.” Jim Crow Museum: Origins of Jim Crow. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.