RECENTLY, I asked a class of University of California undergraduates
to name their heroes. Ten years earlier, their counterparts had listed the Rev.
Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks,
Mohandas K. Gandhi and Vaclav Havel. This time, they mostly named celebrities
who were famous -- well, for being famous.
Sure, it's a sign of the times, a result of our pervasive celebrity culture.
But we need heroes. Celebrities teach us about glamour and appearance, not
how to reach deeply and draw upon inner strengths.
These are times that test our character. Al Qaeda threatens terrorist acts;
North Korea risks going ballistic. Our government presses for war with Iraq,
condemns our traditional allies, considers using tactical nuclear weapons,
curtails our civil liberties, shreds our social services and offers the rich
even more of the nation's wealth.
Now, more than ever, we need courage to overcome fear, register protest,
disregard conventional wisdom, reject easy answers, buck conformity and stand
up for what we believe.
So, in honor of Black History Month, let me tell you about my personal hero,
Harriet Tubman. What inspired my obsession with this former slave? Her
Harriet Tubman, the granddaughter of an African, was born into slavery
around 1820 in Dorchester County, Md. As a child, she suffered repeated
whippings. At age 12, she tried to help a slave who had attempted an escape.
In relatiation, a white overseer beat her with a 2-pound lead weight, causing
a serious head injury. For the rest of her life, she suffered from brief
At age 25, she married John Tubman, a free African American. Five years
later, fearing she would be "sold South," she made her escape. White
"conductors" on the Underground Railroad -- a secret network of safe houses --
moved Tubman by horse and wagon, covered from head to toe in a sack, from one
home to another, until she safely reached Philadelphia.
It's what she did afterward that is so astonishing. She could have remained
in the North, working for the abolitionist movement. Instead, she returned to
the South 19 more times, rescuing members of her family, as well as 300 other
slaves, for which she earned the nickname, "Moses of her people."
Despite the huge bounty offered for her capture, Tubman used her quick wit
to avoid slave hunters. Because newspapers didn't publish runaway-slave
notices until Mondays, she spirited away slaves on Saturday nights -- using a
slave owner's own wagon. When pursued by slave hunters, she would throw them
off by suddenly turning south. To quiet babies, she used drugs to put them to
sleep. Deeply spiritual, but grimly determined, she threatened to shoot any
"passenger" who dared to turn back. Later, she would proudly tell the great
abolitionist Frederick Douglass that she "never lost a single passenger" on
the Underground Railroad.
After the outbreak of the Civil War, Tubman served as a soldier, spy and
nurse for the Union Army. When the war ended, she moved to Auburn, N.Y.,
worked for abolition and woman's suffrage, and built and worked in a home for
the aged and indigent, until her death in 1913.
Harriet Tubman's daring exploits have helped orient my moral compass. We
need such heroes because they remind us that, by comparison, our fears are
often overblown and our own courage is rarely tested.
If you don't have a personal hero, now might be a good time to find one. As
the events of Sept. 11 so clearly revealed, they are not in short supply.
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle