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"Night Flyer" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab

Tiya Miles chronicles and contextualizes Tubman's passion for leading enslaved people to freedom in the North, highlighting her deep-rooted faith and spirituality in “Night Flyer.” Previous biographers have typically portrayed Tubman as a one-of-a-kind mysterious superwoman. However, in Miles' version, we meet Tubman as a little girl nicknamed Minty, an enslaved child who loses her innocence early, suffers extreme hardships and few joys, and later saves countless enslaved people by leading them to freedom. 

Five feet tall, illiterate, and suffering from a brain injury due to an assault by her owner, Harriet Tubman escapes Maryland and settles in upstate New York. As an adult, she repeatedly returns to states where slavery is legal to guide enslaved people north. Tubman is publicly vocal about her opposition to slavery and, at significant personal risk, serves as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. The liberator becomes a heroine when she leads the Combahee Ferry Raid, which rescues more than 700 enslaved people from the Confederate plantations along the Combahee River in South Carolina. 

Miles extensively explores two themes of Tubman's life: her spirituality and ecology. Tubman maintains that everyone should live in freedom and honor the integrity of relationships among all plants and animals. With tenderness and imagination, Miles weaves Tubman's life into the cultural context of her era. She describes the ecology of the escape routes and Black women's Christian spiritual traditions, folk art, and African spirituals. The author explores Tubman's relationship with other lesser-known enslaved women of her time who journey through their personal physical and spiritual wildernesses.

Thanks to Tiya Mile's sensitive study of her subject, Tubman becomes less of an enigma of her time and more of a relatable figure who shows a practical path to a more just and equitable society today. Through the author's excellent exposition, Tubman emerges as someone who may inspire us to confront the deep divisions of racism, sexism, and other long-standing divides still haunting the US.

The title "Night Flyer" was selected to honor Tubman's birdlike qualities at midnight escapes. As an apt conclusion, Miles writes, "I've tried to hold Harriet Tubman up—tenderly and honestly—in her genius, courage, vulnerability, faith, and flaws. And here, at the end, I release her story back to the worldwide well of wise women, knowing she will not tolerate our scrutiny for long. "

I have read other Tubman biographies and this is my favorite. It is an education in Black history through the eyes of an enslaved and then freed woman—a part of US history that was sorely missing in my formal education. It is suitable reading for youth as well as adults. In recognition of her courageous life, Tubman was honored with a commemorative stamp released on February 1, 1978, and will become the face of the $20 bill in 2030.

About the Author: Tiya Miles is the Michael Garvey Professor of History at Harvard University and the author of five prize-winning works on the history of slavery and early American race relations. Penguin Press is the publisher of this extensively noted and thoroughly indexed book, which contains a folio of colored photographs depicting locations mentioned in the book. This biography is the first in Penguin's Signification Series, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.


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