Harriet Tubman woke up with more than a jolt to the gift of dreaming true. She was a black girl, known as Minty, on a slave plantation in Tidewater, Maryland. She may have been 11 years old in 1831 when the gift hit her like a cannonball.
An angry overseer, going after a black man who was running away, grabbed a two-pound metal weight and hurled it after the man. It struck Minty full in the forehead, opening a crater through which blood poured out. Somehow she survived, with a huge dent in her forehead that marked this tiny but stocky and powerfully muscled woman more clearly than any slave brand.
Marked though she was, she succeeded not only in escaping her own slave master but in returning to Maryland from the North again and again to help other slaves make their escape. Harriet started by bringing out family members in small, careful groups. As the situation in the South grew more desperate and the Civil War loomed, she became bolder, bringing out larger parties of complete strangers. Traveling without maps or compass, she found her way from the Maryland shore to Pennsylvania and New York and later--when the Fugitive Slave Law made it necessary to seek safety beyond U.S. territory--all the way to Canada. She conducted more than 300 slaves to freedom, never losing a single "package." On the Underground Railroad, they called her "Moses," the one who gets you to the Promised Land.
By her own account, Harriet Tubman's astonishing achievement was the gift of her dreams. She had been a dreamer before, but that terrible bump on the head kicked her experience of dreaming to a new level of clarity and power. She would experience an urgent need to go to sleep for an hour or two. If she failed to obey this urge at once, she might fall where she stood. It could happen at any time--when she was tilling the field, holding the master's baby, or later when she was exposed and vulnerable, leading a group of frightened runaways along a back road. But she did not simply "black out." She dreamed, and the dreams gave her specific guidance and directions.
|We can use our dreams to navigate through the obstacles of everyday life, opening paths to creative fulfillment for ourselves and our communities.|
Harriet's biographies contain many detailed and convincing stories of how she used dreams to get slaves to freedom as a conductor. There is one episode, from November 1856, that is especially revealing. Harriet had returned to Maryland's Eastern Shore to bring out a group of four slaves that included Joe Bailey, a strong, handsome man who had been brutally flogged the day before, and was still bleeding profusely from his wounds. Bailey's master was out to get him back. As she marched her party down a country road, Harriet's head started to ache violently. She crumpled to her knees, and collapsed there, in plain view, into one of her involuntary "sleeps." Bailey had trouble convincing the other frightened slaves not to abandon her.
When Harriet came round, she ordered the group to follow her along a completely unexpected course that seemed to be taking them deeper into the slave dominions. They came to a river that looked far too deep to wade, and nobody could swim. Harriet insisted they must all go into the river; she was sure there was a place where the water was shallow enough to wade across. Joe Bailey asked if she had crossed the river before. She told him she had crossed it in a dream, the dream she had just had when she fell asleep at the side of the road. Her dream had shown her that they could
get across, and that crossing the river would mask their trail from the patrollers and bloodhounds who were homing in on them. She had seen a cabin on the other side where they would be given food and shelter. Only Bailey followed her when she stepped into the icy river. The water was up above Harriet's chin before the stream got shallower, but she found her ford. The others followed her, and they were greeted on the other side by a black family who sheltered them in their cabin. When Harriet led her group back the way they had come the next day, they found evidence that hunting parties had tracked them all the way down that country road; if they had followed their original route they would have been taken.
Harriet dreamed that President Lincoln freed the slaves three years before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. She was staying in the home of a New York minister at the time. She came down to breakfast in high excitement, singing "My people are free! My people are free!" Her host, the Reverend Henry Garnet, tried to calm her, cautioning her that emancipation would never come in their lifetimes. Harriet trusted her dream. "I tell you sir, you'll see it, and you'll see it soon."
When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Harriet declined an invitation from her abolitionist friends to join a grand celebration, telling them, "I had my
jubilee three years ago. I can't rejoice no more."
Harriet Tubman's story is a remarkable example of how we can dream our dream in the most literal sense. Whatever life throws at us, we can all draw courage and practical guidance for the journey from Harriet's story. We can learn to dream the way she did, and use our dreams to navigate through the trials and obstacles of everyday life, opening paths to a better life and creative fulfillment for ourselves and our communities. Harriet Tubman was an extraordinary woman, but her gift of dreaming true is a gift that is the natural birthright of all of us, if we are only willing to claim it.