Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom
Carole Boston Weatherford & Kadir Nelson
This review is a little late for Martin Luther King Jr. Day (which was yesterday), but that doesn’t mean you should wait another year before tracking this wonderful book down. I happened to stumble upon it in the MLK Jr. display at the San Francisco Central Library, and was so delighted that I sat down and read the whole thing right there. And took it home to share with my kids, as well.
Moses is a re-telling of Harriet Tubman’s first flight to freedom, and her eventual resolve to save as many fellow enslaved African Americans as possible. Her story is profoundly moving, and there are a number of good biographies (picture and otherwise) out there. Two things set this marvelous picture book apart, however.
In the first place, Harriet’s entire journey hangs on the frame of an ongoing conversation with God. Harriet speaks to God, and God speaks right back. He gives her His mandate for her freedom (“I set the North Star in the heavens, and I mean for you to be free”) and helps her minutely along the way. Her superhuman courage and conviction are revealed to be just that:
And Harriet heeds God’s call, goes south again and again, keeps her bands of runaways moving – come storms and rough country – clear to Canada: Canaanland. And when free souls sing her praises, she gives glory where it is due. It wasn’t me. It was the Lord. I always trust Him to lead me, and He always does.
My daughter is in kindergarten this year, and this month she is hearing about Dr Martin Luther King, Jr in school. She’s getting her first introduction to the tragic sin of racism that has festered at our nation’s heart since its inception. I’m so grateful to have happened upon a book that testifies to God’s heart at a real moment in history. In the middle of the evil system of human enslavement, God was resolutely on the side of justice and liberation, and his mighty work was channeled through a powerless slave woman. If this is the history of how God acts, what can we say about his heart today towards the millions who are enslaved and trafficked around the world?
The second thing that instantly won me to this book is the artwork by Kadir Nelson. We’ve reviewed another of his books, and the more time I spend with his work, the more I love it. There is so much soul and life and rich emotion in Harriet’s face, and always a soft light shining upon it – or more accurately, from within it. He may not be Rembrandt, but I can’t help thinking he’s learned a bit about the use of light from the Master. Nowhere in the book – except for her first day in Philadelphia – does Harriet look happy, but in every portrait she looks grimly, fiercely committed, alive, and beautiful.
I love that this book’s story is so deeply theological and Incarnational. God acted, and continues to act in history, and his pattern is uncomfortably plain: pouring himself into what is weak and broken in order to act mightily on its behalf. He did it for all of humanity in Jesus, and in a smaller way he did it for a group of cruelly enslaved human beings in the life of Harriet Tubman. As our children grow, and become increasingly able to understand this truth, I hope that books like this will ask them: how does God want to work in you?