Harriet Tubman

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Fri Aug 4 07:58:17 MDT 2000

(The following are edited remarks by Mike Alewitz, LAMP Artistic Director,
to the Freedom and Human Rights Night program, at the national conference
of the AME Zion Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Other speakers
included US Rep. Mel Watt, Julian Bond and others. The AME was the church
of Harriet Tubman. The event took place August 1, 2000)


Thank you all for allowing me to be here this evening.

I was invited by Baltimore Clayworks, as one of 50 "Millennium Artists," to
do a project in Maryland. Through discussions with them, and activists in
the Underground Railroad Movement, I developed an idea for a piece of
artwork - a series of murals call "The Dreams of Harriet Tubman."

Harriet Tubman, you may know, was narcoleptic or epileptic, (depending on
whom you read.) She was a very spiritual woman and she had a lot of
visions. Some were of historical events and some were more personal. It
seemed like a good starting point to do a group of murals. Our idea was to
create a series of mural around the state of Maryland that would highlight
some of the aspects of this amazing woman's life.

As we began to create the murals, we ran into some problems.

One of the murals, which highlighted her role as an educator, called
"Education for All," painted at a middle school in Harford County, was
vandalized with racist graffiti and swastikas.

More seriously, the main mural that was to be painted in Baltimore was
rejected by the group for whom it was designed. It showed Harriet Tubman as
Moses - armed, militant, parting the seas of reaction. She is overturning a
slave ship on one side, and a modern day slave ship - a sweatshop- on the
other side.

What you see behind me is a small sketch of that image - a portable mural.
It was supposed to be almost thirty feet high.

Well it's not unusual for groups to decline murals. But despite the fact
that a leading national artist, hosted by one of the foremost arts groups
in Baltimore, funded by the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation and the National
Endowment for the Arts, in a program initiated out of the White House
Millennium program - no major institution in the city of Baltimore would
take the mural! A free mural!

It seems that almost a century after her death, Harriet Tubman still scares
those who are in power.

This portable piece will tour the country, available for those who may wish
to use it.

When the mural was declined, I was asked by the press if I would remove the
gun. I refused to do so.

I don't want a kinder, gentler Harriet Tubman. She was a tough woman who
lived in scary times. I don't want to make Harriet Tubman a meaningless
icon that hangs in McDonalds to try to get you to buy hamburgers. She was a
freedom fighter - and that is how she should be painted.

When you paint someone - as I've been painting Harriet, you get to know him
or her quite well...

I asked myself: If Harriet could get down off the wall, or step off this
banner, what would she have to tell us today?

What would this woman - who worked the fields as a slave, who worked as a
lumberjack cutting down trees, and who toiled as a domestic worker until
she was very old, because the government she had fought for refused to
relinquish her pension - what would she have to say about the sweatshop
conditions of workers today? What would she have to say about the plight of
immigrant workers and those who have been disenfranchised in the boom economy?

What would Harriet Tubman - who fought with arms in hand, and led troops in
battle at the end of the civil war - who made a revolution - what would she
have to say about these elections we are watching? What would she say about
the sons of wealth and privilege paving their way to the White House with
international carnage and the periodic public executions of the poor?

What would she say - this fearless conductor on the Underground Railroad -
a guerilla leader who was called "General Tubman" by John Brown - what
would she say about generals who wage war by remote control? Who send
rockets costing a hundred million dollars to explode overhead while
children go without the necessities of life?

What would this woman - who served as a nurse - have to say about a country
that provides everything which science is capable of to the wealthy - and
nothing at all to 40 million of it's citizens?

What would Harriet Tubman, who organized an assault on the Troy, NY
courthouse to prevent them from sending an escaped slave back down south -
when more moderate voices said let the courts take their course - she went
in and grabbed him - and she yelled "Take him to the river and drown him,
but don't let them send him back into slavery!"- what would she have to say
and do about Mumia Abu-Jamal and other victims of racist injustice who
languish in our jails today?

And what would she have to say - almost 150 years after the end of slavery
- about a country where the upper classes are intoxicated by the money they
are "making" on the stock market - what would she say about that country
that still cannot admit and recognize that the great wealth that exists
here was build on the backs of slaves like her?

I think I know what she would say ... because she said it.

When Harriet Tubman was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, slaves
would often become very fearful, and want to turn back. I was an incredible
thing - to have to step into another universe. But they could not be
allowed to turn back, for it would jeopardize the whole network.

Harriet Tubman carried a pistol. And she would put it to their heads. And
she would say: "Move or die."

And that is one of the reasons I kept that weapon in the mural. It is to
remind us, in the year 2000, that we must move or die.

Today as we are meeting here, there are young people demonstrating in the
streets of Philadelphia. They will be in the streets of Los Angeles, as
they have been in Seattle and Washington D.C. There is a national
discussion unfolding about reparations for slavery. It is all part of a
growing movement that questions the division of wealth that exists in the
world. And it raises the question of whether those who produce the wealth
should get the wealth.

It's all part of one big movement. And I think if Harriet Tubman was alive
today, and she saw that movement - she would repeat what she said about the
Underground Railroad movement: "It's the good ship Zion, and it's time to
get aboard."

With that in mind, I have decided to name this little piece "Move or Die."

I want to thank you all for allowing me to unveil it here. Harriet Tubman
was a deeply spiritual woman. It's what motivated her life and her
struggle. And it's an honor and privilege to be with you this evening.


Mike Alewitz, Artistic Director LaBOR aRT & MuRAL PRoJECT
c/o Department of Art Central Connecticut State University
New Britain, CT 06050
Phone: (860)832-2359

Website: http://www.igc.apc.org/laborart

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Louis Proyect

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