Misquoting Moses

“I’m sick o’ all these white people makin’ up stuff I supposedly said!”

When Hillary Clinton needed to bring her Democratic National Convention speech to a crescendo Tuesday night, she did so the way a lot of politicians do these days: By quoting a dead, much-bedraggled, poor Black person.

In this case, the honor fell on Harriet Tubman, above, the noted abolitionist whose exploits made the Underground Railroad legendary:

My mother was born before women could vote. My daughter got to vote for her mother for president. This is the story of America, of women and men who defy the odds and never give up.

So how do we give this country back to them? By following the example of a brave New Yorker, a woman who risked her lives to bring slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad.

On that path to freedom, Harriet Tubman had one piece of advice: “If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there’s shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.”

And even in the darkest moments, that is what Americans have done. We have found the faith to keep going.

Wow…. Lovely words. Powerful, even.

But Tubman never said them.

Telling the truth, for a change…So says Dr. Kate Clifford Larson, author of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero, right. The highly acclaimed volume, released in 2003, was the first adult biography of the former slave in over 60 years.

In an e-mail to MEDIA ASSASSIN, Dr. Clifford Larson said of Clinton’s reference, “This quote, and variations of it, have been attributed to Tubman since the mid 20th century.  I believe Milt Sernett, in his book, Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History, traced the quote, but you would have to check. I researched this years ago and determined it came from a juvenile account of Tubman’s life sometime in the 1950s.”

However, Larson, below, who was watching the speech as Clinton made the statement, and who was “thrilled that she mentioned Harriet Tubman,” believes that the quote, although fictional, actually captures the spirit of the activist.

The good doctor.“Tubman, indeed, never did give up,” she notes, “and spent her life encouraging people to keep fighting for freedom, equality, justice, and self-determination. … While Clinton used a commonly attributed quote of Tubman’s that is not known to be original, she did capture Tubman’s spirit.”

Agreed, perhaps. I mean, it wasn’t like Clinton said Tubman uttered this between slices of pizza while a Coke.

But keep in mind that Clinton was citing people who were escaping brutal slavery, not foreclosures. By highlighting the latter this way, why doesn’t she reduce the former?

This isn’t the first time she’s done this either. Some will recall her 2006 Martin Luther King Day comment, here, in my neighborhood, Harlem, when she told an assembled throng that Congress was run “like a plantation.”

Really?

I was stunned when I heard this statement, in part because, when I see images of actual plantations—Southern antebellum mansions surrounded by trees draped in Spanish moss—I have the same gut reaction I imagine many Jewish people do when they see pictures of Dachau. But what would the reaction have been if she’d said Congress was run “like a concentration camp”?

My point? History isn’t spin. It matters. If you’re going to cite it, don’t romanticize it, or filter it. Just tell the truth. Spare us the children’s stories.

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9 comments ↓

#1 Ms. Porter on 08.27.08 at 2:13 pm

Thank you,Thank You, Thank you!!! I have MAJOR issue with this as well; Ancestor’s are not to be used as ‘tokens’ or Hype men.

“don’t believe the hype ( “Now here’s what i want you to do for me!”)- PE

#2 Ms. Porter on 08.27.08 at 2:18 pm

(& of course my mellow my man! :-)

#3 Lena West on 08.27.08 at 4:14 pm

Yes, let’s get the facts straight.

Here’s what Ms. Tubman was supposed to have said:

“Children, if you are tired, keep going; if you are hungry, keep going; if you want to taste freedom, keep going.”

However, this quote was supposedly taken from a fiction-based biography written ABOUT Ms. Tubman.

I don’t have a problem with Hillary Clinton quoting Ms. Tubman. She gave attribution and this is not the first time we’ve (meaning the media) had this conversation about Hillary Clinton trying to paraphrase Ms. Tubman:

1998: http://clinton4.nara.gov/WH/EOP/First_Lady/html/generalspeeches/1998/19980729-6380.html

2007: http://mediamatters.org/items/200704260001

She runs this line all the time. So my question is: why is this news?

#4 Varneer on 08.27.08 at 5:33 pm

Nice work here. I thought her invocation of Harriet Tubman was fine but the phrase seemed a little too neat.

#5 Dantresomi on 08.27.08 at 9:51 pm

It’s funny because when she said those words, I thought to myself “did she say that… or is she just paraphrasing like a historical fiction novel writer?”

#6 james on 08.30.08 at 8:32 am

the hell with history, according to MRS Clinton, instead it’s what ever suits her agenda. thank god she is on her way to gone.

#7 Great work on 08.31.08 at 1:02 am

Thank you for point out the inaccuracy of Hillary’s ” ”
Let the truth rain on us all…

#8 Testify on 09.01.08 at 5:11 pm

Hillary could have avoided all this controversy and just quoted the eternal wisdom of the Wu-tang Clan: “Run! If you want to still have fun, just run!”

#9 alexis on 02.22.10 at 5:39 pm

that is so sad those white people need to learn how to bequit and stop worrin about wit somebody said

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