In Henry Cole’s wordless picture book, Unspoken (Scholastic, 2013), a young farm girl leading a cow down a country lane turns her head to stare at a string of Confederate soldiers passing by on horseback. Later, gathering potatoes in the shed, she is startled to see a single eye peering out from between stalks of corn piled in a dim corner. At dinner that night, she eyes her own meal, quietly wraps a biscuit in a checked napkin, and delivers it to the shed. She barely sees the runaway; the pictures show just an eye. She never speaks with the hidden figure, but she leaves food, wrapped in cloth, even as terrifying, armed slave hunters on horseback show her family a poster: “Wanted. Escaped. Reward.”Then the fugitive disappears in the night, but the girl finds a doll made from the star-patterned cloth that covered the food she had brought. At the story’s end, the girl lies in bed watching the stars in the night sky.
On the back cover of the book the Cole writes, “What would you do if you had the chance to help a person find freedom?”
This weekend, the movie Harriet (Focus Feature Films, 2019) was released and it is an outstanding film showcasing the extraordinary feats of Harriet Tubman. Tubman “gained international acclaim during her lifetime as an Underground Railroad agent, abolitionist, Civil War spy and nurse, suffragist, and humanitarian” (US National Park Service). The movie presents Tubman rise above horrific childhood adversity and emerge with a will of steel. Tubman transcends victimization to achieve personal and physical freedom from her oppressors.
In fact, Tubman emancipated herself from slavery in 1849 at age 27. She earned the nickname “Moses” for risking her own life about 13 times to guide more than 70 people—many of them family and friends she had left behind—from lives in slavery to new lives in freedom. She never backed down from the chance to help others find freedom.
One of the lesson plans on the US National Park’s Service websites has students examine What led Tubman to escape slavery and to return to rescue her family and friends? What factors led other enslaved people to remain in their conditions? Was Harriet Tubman’s decision a product of personal courage, her situation as an enslaved woman facing sale, or a grave risk?
Harriet, the movie comes at a time when a nation is faced with helping others looking for freedom. From Syrian Refugees to Central and South Americans looking to escape the violence in their home countries, individuals make choices whether to help others find freedom. Harriet and the young protagonist in Unspoken model actions both big and small to help others to be free. Are you an upstander too?