Thursday, January 25, 2007

Harriet and The Promised Land by Jacob Lawrence

This book was first published in 1968, and redone in 1993. It is truly one of the most beautiful tributes to Harriet Tubman’s life. After seeing that Moses :when Harriet Tubman led her people to freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford received the Caldecott this year, it is nice to go back to Lawrence’s book and view another poetic, artistic rendition of her life and work. Tubman’s faith in God shines out in Weatherford’s book as she is often depicted listening to the voice of God for guidance. Lawrence follows this theme as well. In my amateur art viewer’s opinion she is shown as a Christ figure in several panels:
1. At her birth she is laid out in a manger-shaped bed with her mother and father bending over her in adoration, in much the same way that Jesus is traditionally portrayed at his birth surrounded by Mary and Joseph.
2. The North Star, reminiscent of the Star of David appears in the sky above them and is seen in most of the panels that follow.
3. As a young child Harriet sits at the feet of a wise woman, listening to her teaching about Moses, the Promised Land, and how the Lord spoke to Moses. This reminds me of Jesus sitting in the Temple listening to the teachers of the law.
4.Harriet prays to God in the night, asking for strength, just as Jesus prayed in the garden before his trial.
5. When Harriet gets the sign that the time is right she raises her hand to point to the star and leads her people. She tells them “Believe in the Lord! Believe in me!” just as in John 14:1, Jesus said, "Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me."
6. On the way, when Harriet is traveling on the underground railroad she and her band stop at a safe house. The illustration shows black folks around the table eating with a white woman serving food. A white man is washing Harriet’s feet, just as Mary washed Jesus’ feet when he and his disciples ate at the Pharisee’s house.
7. The text goes on to say “Now Harriett grew weary and sick at heart. Now the Lord sent Harriet a chariot! The chariot was sent by the Lord’s own hand, and Harriet rode the chariot to the Promised Land!” The illustration shows Harriet and her people in a wagon pulled by a white horse, rising into the North Star. It recalls to me Elisha riding the chariot of fire into heaven.

So Harriet is compared to Moses, Elisha, and Jesus as she leads her people to freedom. With spare and beautiful text Lawrence tells this story of strength, determination, courage and faith. In using these literary devices to portray Harriet as a prophet and messiah figure Lawrence emphasizes the significance of her work and sacrifice in the fight for freedom and justice. She is said to have lead more than 300 people to freedom in her trips back and forth from North to South and North again. I would say that her unfailing efforts to break the bonds of slavery for those individuals contributed to the work of demanding justice and freedom for the whole of America with effects lasting to this day. Just as Moses’ work lead to the building of a nation and Jesus work brings freedom and life to us all, Harriet’s work brings a legacy that we all, white and black and brown together benefit from every day of our lives, whether we see it or not. That is why Harriet is so important to our history and why this book is so inspiring.

If you are a teacher or home-schooler looking for a really excellent unit of study for Black History Month, check out these links on Jacob Lawrence and go to town! He is one of America’s foremost painters, trained in Harlem during the height of its golden age and a prolific producer of awesome art. Other books by or about him are The Great Migration by Jacob Lawrence, Toussaint L'ouverture: The Fight for Haiti's Freedom by Jacob Lawrence, and Complete Jacob Lawrence by Peter T. Nesbett.

History of Tubman:
Great museum site on Lawrence:
Webquest and lesson plans for a study of Lawrence:
NPR tribute/obit:
Lesson plan for grades 3.4:
Amazon review by Allysa A. Lappen: Scroll down to read her review for interesting information about Lawrence, his art training and his career. Also on this Amazon page scroll down to see the “Better Together” section and click the link for the suggested companion volume The Great Migration by Lawrence, and read her review of that. It makes me really want to buy both of these fantastic books!

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