Hilary and Harriet Tubman

At last night’s DNC, Hilary delivered the speech of her career calling for Democratic party unity, galvanizing the delegates (photo from the DNC Flickrstream). Todd Beeton, live blogging the speech for MyDD, wrote:

Holy crap. When she spoke of Harriet Tubman’s advice: “Keep going!” that was the moment of the night. It resonated on so many levels. It defines America. It defines how Hillary ran her race.

The people commenting on Beeton’s blog, and pretty much everyone else, including Spike Lee, is cheering Hilary for her speech, so I’m prepared to stand our here alone in my criticism of her.   I’ll grant that it was a finely crafted political speech, delivered well.   My issue is with that ending.

Hilary does not have a great record on issues of race and racism in this campaign, as I’ve written about here before.   When Hilary started in on the part of the speech about Seneca Falls, I expected her to mention race along with gender.  Yet, she ignored the issue even though that early convention on the rights of women was forged out of the anti-slavery movement.   Instead, what she (or her speechwriters) did was use the rhetorical flourish of Harriet Tubman to close the speech.  Here’s what she said:

And on that path to freedom, Harriett Tubman had one piece of advice.

If you hear the dogs, keep going.

If you see the torches in the woods, keep going.

If they’re shouting after you, keep going.

Don’t ever stop. Keep going.

If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.
Even in the darkest of moments, ordinary Americans have found the faith to keep going.

Clearly, this language resonated for huge numbers of people.  To my ears, though, seeing and hearing Hilary invoke the legacy and the words of Harriet Tubman to describe this political campaign elides the importance of race.  It also seems like the classic white-person move to look backward in time and identify with the oppressed, when in point of fact Tubman was leading people out of slavery and away from the danger of white people.   Now, I get that Hilary was trying to do the “party unity” thing and she did.     I’m just saying, it makes me cringe a little when the white feminists (especially this one) start invoking Harriet Tubman to describe their own struggle.

Updated (3:30pmEST) to add: Just saw this from Nora Ephron writing at Huffington Post, adding another critical voice to the almost uniform adulation of Hilary (H/T to Kate at Brainstorms):

My other favorite thing about Hillary’s speech is that she wrapped herself up in Seneca Falls, and my God Harriet Tubman, even Harriet Tubman, and yet somehow she never once referred to Roe vs. Wade. She never once mentioned choice. She never once said the truth, which is that any Hillary supporter who doesn’t understand that this issue alone is the reason to vote for Obama has no business pretending to be a Democrat.

And, there are some powerful racial politics around reproductive health in this country, but of course, Hilary didn’t go there either.


  1. Good post Jessie. I think the context of her speech has to be considered when making broader observations. It seems to me anyway that her dual purpose in making the speech was to voice her support for Barack Obama and to try to reach her lunatic fringe supporters to convince them to support him as well. Any discussion of reproductive health, or race / gender relations would have complicated the message. And by a fair amount of press reports, it is questionable whether she achieved the latter of those missions.

  2. Jessie Author

    Excellent point(s), Mordy. Like I said, I totally get that she was “on message” and anything else would have distracted from that goal. Still, it would have been nice, not to mention unusual, if she could have not been so completely tone-deaf on matters of race. Joe, Adia, I and others writing here have all chastised the media for the false race/gender dichotomy, but it’s pols like Hilary that lead the way on such limited conceptualizations of gender, race and politics.


  1. Terror in the Heartland » racismreview.com: Hilary and Harriet Tubman

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