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Was Harriet Tubman "crazy" on purpose?

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

Black and white image of Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman

"I wanna die, I wanna die!"

She yelled as she banged her head on the asphalt of the grocery store parking lot.

I heard the commotion while driving past the front of the store as I searched for a parking spot. That's when I saw that she was laying on her side jerking like a fish out of water. Her wrists were handcuffed behind her back and one of the 3 police officers present was not quite successfully pulling her up to a sitting position to keep her head from contacting the pavement.

"I wanna die!" she yelled a few more times as I was walking past them toward the store entrance. She was out of breath now and she then started screaming "I need some water, I need some water!

At the time, I was so overwhelmed by the "craziness" of the situation that I didn't recognize the conflicting nature of these two declarations.

One statement expressed a desire to no longer be alive.

The other, expressed a need for something which has properties which help keep her alive.

Because of her mental state, it is fair to say that she too may have missed the irony.

That same day a friend of mine shared that his niece had apparently ran her car off the road and into a bayou. She previously recorded a Facebook Live video saying goodbye and apparently even live-streamed as the car careened into the ditch. It appears it was intentional. I was so sad for my friend and couldn't help thinking, “OMG, that’s crazy!”

If anyone reading this has similar thoughts as the two women above, please consider calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255. Available 24 hours. Languages: English, Spanish. Learn more

These two events weighed heavily on my mind for the rest of the day and into the next. They saddened me and they fascinated me. I could not stop thinking about how it is that these two people got to the point where they did what they did.

Humans, if not the only species, may be one of few species which can knowingly set themselves on a path toward self extermination. A dog running into a busy street, getting hit by a car and dying as a result cannot be said to have committed suicide. A sober person doing the same thing can.

I find it interesting that instinctively, most species are "programmed" to survive. Even we humans reflexively engage in "fight or flight" stress response when faced with situations that place us in immediate danger but a program override has to take place when humans intentionally endanger themselves.

Theoretically, when I jump off a trampoline to a height where my head is parallel with the top of a backboard, a lot of things could go wrong and I could die as a result. Is it possible that “my training” overrides the impulse to panic and turns "fight or flight” stress response into a more palatable and even pleasurable adrenaline rush? By “my training” I mean the 1000’s of times I have jumped off the trampoline and experienced some level of fight or flight stress response but have not suffered injury as a result. Over time, I've come to believe jumping off a trampoline and dunking a basketball is non-threatening. Just as at some level I’ve convinced myself that skydiving, bungee jumping, parasailing and hot-air ballooning are and have partaken in each of those with gusto! I have been told that I’m "crazy" to have done these things.

Are the sensations I experience during what I call an adrenaline rush the same sensations I experience during a fight or flight stress response where I perceive a threat? Is it my mind that makes the difference? Some research suggests that yes the sensations are similar and that it is my mind that makes the difference.

Randomly, because I have been doing some studying about Harriet Tubman, I began to wonder what “fight or flight” stress responses she had to endure not only as a slave but as a freer of slaves. Certainly, slaves had stressful lives as their lives were being controlled and exploited. Danger existed all around them. In fact it is fear of punishment (beatings, lashings, being sold, family being sold, killed) that kept slaves from doing what they really wanted to do (escape, spend time with family, resting, exerting their will).

How many times in a day did Harriet Tubman experience some level of fight or flight stress response and to what degree did she have to reprogram herself to experience it and still desire freedom? It is conceivable that some slaves had to accept that how they were treated was just the way things were and would always be and that belief made it easier to get through the day and to get through life. Imagine the twisting of morality that must take place for a person to reach that point.

When I think of Harriet Tubman and what she went through, I cannot imagine she accepted any of it. I see her as someone who, in spite of not being able to read, believed that to be alive is to be free to choose. Look at the work she did through her life and it illustrates a woman devoted to the idea that living free is the only way to operate in the world. Learning about her, I understand that once she got a taste of freedom, it was so exhilarating that she decided to help as many people as she could to experience freedom as well. She was also driven by her passionate faith in God. After a head injury, Tubman experienced vivid dreams and visions which she interpreted as revelations from God. This "crazy" belief too is credited for her drive and unshakeable belief in her purpose. Might it also be a part of the “reprogramming” of her fight or flight stress response?

Every time she traveled into slave territory to free others, she was putting herself in harm's way. Most people would say it was “crazy” what she did. Danger lurked around every corner. I found myself wondering what training she undertook to reprogram her fight or flight stress response. To what extent did the daily dangers of enslavement train her to navigate the dangers of being a free black woman who escaped from slavery? To what extent had she studied the white folks who enslaved her? To what extent had she studied the geography of her surroundings, the comings and goings of the seasons, the cycle of the stars and the moon, the attitudes of free people around her and the attitudes she needed to survive? To what extent did she know the danger waiting in the wings but did the work anyway?

I was put on this planet to flip and I'm considered a sensation seeker or adrenaline junkee because I feel more alive when I engage in dangerous activities for the “fun” of it. Harriet Tubman could have been killed every time she helped free someone and as a black woman in America during the 1800’s, she could have been killed just for expressing her freedom in a way that offended white folks. How was she able to live and operate so effectively in such a state of heightened stress? It is estimated that she made 13 Underground Railroad expeditions over the course of 11 years starting in 1850 and struggled financially as she carried our her life's work until her early 90’s when she died in 1913. Is it possible she felt most alive as she lived on purpose, in spite of the dangers, the stress and the oppression?

When I think of the two women referred to at the beginning of this essay, I realize I do not know their story, their motives, or their purpose and I withhold judgment of them.

When I think of Harriet Tubman, I think of the power of her purpose to be free and how it allowed her and many others to experience a form of freedom that in her time, she was deeply grateful for but would definitely not be considered freedom today. I think of how that power has inspired so many to seek their own versions of freedom and purpose.

So just maybe it makes sense that, for those of us who are mentally stable but "crazy" enough to do it, we take a page out of Harriet’s book and escape conformity, identify the work that only we can do and carry it out to the best of our ability and derive motivation and inspiration from it in a way that no matter how scary, dangerous or bleak the chances of success are, the rightness of our purpose allows us to forge ahead and do what we are here to do anyway.

That is a form of freedom worth living for.

*Edited 4/26/21 to include 2nd image, corrections to grammar and suicide hotline information

*Edited 4/28/21 to correct date of 1950 to 1850

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Rachel Mabry-Jackson
Rachel Mabry-Jackson

I loved ". Is it possible she felt most alive as she lived on purpose".

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