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Night Flyer

Harriet Tubman and the Faith Dreams of a Free People

Author Tiya Miles
Series edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. On Tour
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“Groundbreaking...Through Tiya Miles’ meticulous research and an unwavering focus on Tubman’s humanity, Night Flyer has transformed a fantastical figure from a bygone time into an accessible, modern-day inspiration.” - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Though broad strokes of Tubman’s story are widely known, Miles probes deeper, examining her inner life, faith and relationships with other enslaved Black women to paint a deeper, more vibrant portrait of a historical figure whose mythic status can sometimes overshadow her humanity.” The New York Times

From the National Book Award–winning author of All That She Carried, an intimate and revelatory reckoning with the myth and the truth behind an American everyone knows and few really understand


Harriet Tubman is among the most famous Americans ever born and soon to be the face of the twenty-dollar bill. Yet often she’s a figure more out of myth than history, almost a comic-book superhero. Despite being barely five feet tall, unable to read, and suffering from a brain injury, she managed to escape from her own enslavement, return again and again to lead others north to freedom without loss of life, speak out powerfully against slavery, and then become the first American woman in history to lead a military raid, freeing some seven hundred people. You could almost say she’s America’s Robin Hood, a miraculous vision, often rightly celebrated but seldom understood.

Tiya Miles’s extraordinary Night Flyer changes all that. With her characteristic tenderness and imaginative genius, Miles explores beyond the stock historical grid to weave Tubman’s life into the fabric of her world. She probes the ecological reality of Tubman’s surroundings and examines her kinship with other enslaved women who similarly passed through a spiritual wilderness and recorded those travels in profound and moving memoirs. What emerges, uncannily, is a human being whose mysticism becomes more palpable the more we understand it—a story that offers us powerful inspiration for our own time of troubles. Harriet Tubman traversed many boundaries, inner and outer. Now, thanks to Tiya Miles, she becomes an even clearer and sharper signal from the past, one that can help us to echolocate a more just and sustainable path.
© Stephanie Mitchell
Tiya Miles is the Michael Garvey Professor of History at Harvard University, the author of five prizewinning works on the history of slavery and early American race relations, and a 2011 MacArthur Fellowship recipient. She was the founder and director of the Michigan-based ECO Girls program, and she is the author of the National Book Award–winning, New York Times bestselling All That She Carried. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. View titles by Tiya Miles
1

THE WATER

Wade in the water

Wade in the water, children

Wade in the water

God's going to trouble the water.

-"Wade in the Water,"
traditional spiritual

In a world like this, what can faith mean?

-Joanna Macy, "Faith, Power,
and Deep Ecology," 1991

To be taken is surely every child's nightmare. The boogeyman, the ghoul in the shadows, or the monster underneath the bed haunts the edges of tender minds, breaking through in the darkness. For Minty Ross, the girl who would one day become Harriet Tubman, that boogeyman was a demon called Slavery, and his powers to snatch children from the ones who loved them was tangibly, terribly real. She arrived in a world drenched in threat and neglect. These powerfully negative twin forces shaped her early consciousness, imparting an indelible sense of insecurity, shame, and purpose.

When Minty Ross was born around the year 1822, she entered a family shredded by the teeth of the demon Slavery. Her mother, Rit, and father, Ben, were each enslaved by different owners on the coast of the vastest estuary in the United States. These swelling shores and fertile lands that had long been home to Nanticoke, Choptank, and many other Indigenous peoples composed the Chesapeake Bay of eastern Maryland. Rit, whose full name was Harriet Green, had herself been born in the late 1780s to an African woman called Modesty, who had suffered the original break from kin during the Middle Passage when she was brought to this place from her home in the belly of a slaving ship. If Modesty arrived in Maryland in the 1770s, she may have come from Senegal, as ships originating from that French-colonized West African nation appear in a database of such voyages. Modesty conceived Rit with a man whose name has eluded historical records. Some historians suppose that this man may have been Modesty's enslaver. Rit had siblings who also entered the world behind a shroud of racial mystery.

Rit Green and Ben Ross were each conceived in states of bondage. Their ultimately loving marriage was as well. When Rit's legal owner, Mary Pattison Brodess (who had obtained Rit from her Pattison family line), remarried to the well-off entrepreneur and timber exporter Anthony Thompson after her first husband, Joseph Brodess, died, she moved some of the people she owned to Thompson's plantation. Rit and Ben were then residing in physical proximity on the Thompson estate, a large property of field, forest, and marshy land amounting to approximately one thousand acres. During the long, hard hours spent in one another's company, they formed a lifelong bond. Only after seeking permission from their respective owners did they marry, as enslaved people did not have license to wed without the consent of those who legally, though immorally, controlled their lives.

This bay, which had been forged by a meteor strike nearly 35 million years ago, was the place where the couple began to bring their own babies into the world-sons and daughters, nine in all, beautiful beacons of life. But Rit and Ben did not have custody of these children. According to Maryland statute, as was typical across the slaveholding South, a child inherited the status of their mother. And Rit was unfree. Through a complicated chain of events that had transpired over time-a white woman's widowhood, her remarriage, and later her son's inheritance-Rit Green Ross was property of Edward Brodess, the young son of Mary Pattison Brodess Thompson and her first husband, and so, too, were her children. The offspring of Rit and Ben therefore belonged to their mother's legal enslavers-the Pattison-Brodesses. And after Mary Brodess Thompson's premature death, the children would be managed by Anthony Thompson, her widower, until the young Brodess came of age.

The Green-Ross family, like so many other African American families, was born into the genealogical breach that Modesty's forced exile from Africa had wrought. Members of their bloodline and loveline would always struggle with loss and heartache. Before Minty Ross crested in her mother's waters and pushed through the womb to glimpse the shadowed light of this world, she had probably already lost kin to the demon. On the Pattison plantation from which her mother hailed, enslaved girls, likely extended family members, had been sold. Minty would never know them, but she may have heard stories and feared future recurrences of familial division. While Ben and Rit had at first resided on the Thompson estate and started a family there, they would be separated around the year 1827-28 by Rit's legal owner. After relocating Rit and the children to his farm, Edward Brodess pursued various leasing arrangements and work assignments, sending Rit to reside off-site to labor for different "employers." As soon as the couple's children became old enough, or able to work at any task that would either secure their room and board or pay dividends to their legal owners, they were also sent away. Rit and Ben had no say in these decisions as family members were placed in an unpredictable chain of serial removes to other places in the area. Their shared family life was marred by constant disorientation and painful goodbyes.

Minty had been born a middle child in a period when the practice of slavery was changing in the Upper South state of Maryland due to the expansion of cotton agriculture to the west. Around the time of the American Revolution in the 1770s and 1780s, when fertile soils had been exhausted and the tobacco economy had faltered, slaveholders in the Chesapeake began looking to other financial opportunities. They turned first to the production of grain and later to the commodification of human laborers. By the nineteenth century, cotton production was extending farther south and west into the rich lands of Native American nations that would be seized by the United States in the "Indian Removal" era of the 1820s and 1830s. White opportunists and agriculturalists migrating into these newly opened lands sought to enlarge their labor forces. For slaveholders in the Upper South, unfree Black people represented easy earnings in this changing economic environment. Maryland farmers began taking advantage of the wealth stored in the bodies of their legal slaves. Some sold individuals into cotton country, separating families; many hired out African Americans to others, who could use their labor on a temporary basis. Slaveholders also diversified their economic operations, developing flourishing timber and canal construction industries that forcibly exploited unfree people for the worst jobs while also employing free Black workers. The owners of Minty's family adopted all these financial strategies. As the shape of chattel bondage shifted in Maryland, so did the population distribution. The percentage of free African Americans increased through manumission as well as escapes as individuals relocated to the large port city of Baltimore and as higher numbers of enslaved people were leased to work beyond their legal owners' estates.

Fear must have been an overriding emotion for Rit Green as she went about her daily labors in the late 1820s, caring for her own children as well as she could, keeping house for the family that possessed her, tending their children as commanded, and striving to maintain the inner strength that would enable her to rise the next morning. She could be sent away from her little ones at any time. Her children could be plucked from the physically barren but emotion-filled space of her one-room cabin. Minty Ross must have sensed, as she passed through toddlerhood, that her family was perennially poised on a dangerous precipice. At any moment, the family structure could come crashing down, breaking bonds and shattering the lives of parents and children alike. The demon Slavery had come for her kin before Minty first drew breath, and he had not relented.

Despite the odds against it in this context of trepidation and separation, Minty Ross knew familial love and care, so much so that one of her earliest memories was of parental tenderness in the material form of a wooden cradle. "In the eastern shore of Maryland Dorchester County is where I was born," a mature Harriet Tubman told Emma Telford, the white neighbor who wrote down the autobiographical testimony around the year 1905. "The first thing I remember, was lying in [the] cradle. You seen these trees that are hollow. Take a big tree, cut it down, put a bode [board] in each end, make a cradle of it and call it a 'gum. I remember lying in that there." Tubman's early memory was sensory. She recalled the sensation of her small, immeasurably fragile body pressing against the flesh of the felled tree. She may have associated this physical feeling with safety and shelter, much as she would experience the touch of a tree against her back during a snowstorm decades later. Tubman does not say so in her reminiscences, but this cradle was probably carved by her father, Ben, a skilled timberman and woodworker.

Like her father, Harriet Tubman would spend substantial time among trees during her youth. Her familiarity with the woods shows as she pauses in this recollection to specify the kind of tree that formed her cradle, as well as the method of making it. The steps she succinctly recounts in this passage would have been laborious. An unfree father like Ben had to make time for his family beyond his forced work hours for the enslaving family, carving out minutes just as he would coax forms from trees. He had to select a large tree of the correct species for the cradle-the versatile, aromatic sweet gum-then chop it down, smooth it out, and anchor it to end boards. The sweet gum was a deciduous tree common, but not predominant, in clearings and aged fields near the Chesapeake Bay. Standing on tall, grayish trunks typically ranging in size from 60 to 100 feet, sweet gums emitted a lemony mint aroma and dangled leaves shaped like stars. After their annual spring flowering, the trees dropped fruits with long stalks attached to brown balls covered by prickly points. Residents along the bay used this tree for numerous purposes. Indigenous people, who had lived in the area long before the arrival of English settlers, used the inner bark to treat ailments like diarrhea, flux, and dysentery in people as well as distemper in dogs. English colonists, relative newcomers to the region since the early 1600s, scraped resin from inside the bark to chew as gum and to treat illness. And it would seem from the evidence of Minty's cradle that African Americans used the sweet gum's hardwood to craft family furnishings. Overall, lumber was the principle use for this tree, which woodworkers transformed into all manner of containers and cabinets.

Surely the crafting of one of these sweet gums into a swaying crib that would hold and rock baby Minty was a labor of love. But perhaps this wooden cradle in which Minty lay as an infant would be remembered so clearly by the mature Harriet Tubman not just because it felt safe but also because it was the last space of bodily safety and emotional security that she would ever know from childhood through young adulthood. An enslaved child was afforded only a brief stint of innocence, starting from birth and ending with that devastating moment when, as a result of some observation, or more often a death or separation, the child could perceive who-and what-society said they were: chattel, property, slaves of others who deserved the dregs of life. Soon after this cradle memory, golden-hued, like a sunset, Tubman's recollections turn dark and disordered.

As an older woman, Harriet Tubman narrated events from her early life to biographers, supporters, and advocates and activists of the Underground Railroad network without a clear chronology, allowing the most striking, and often traumatic, occurrences to push forward in her accounts. For reasons that only she knew-perhaps the pain of remembered trauma, perhaps the prioritization of certain stories for select audiences in order to raise funds to continue her vital rescue work-Tubman did not always specify where she and her family lived when, and whether she resided on the plantation of her mother's enslaver's second husband, or on the grounds of someone who leased her, or on the land of her original enslavers' son as significant events occurred. What emerges as the clearest pattern from Tubman's early childhood remembrances is deprivation of parental presence due either to Rit's and Ben's labor-driven absence on the same grounds or to Minty's and Rit's forced relocations.

In this environment of absence, upheaval, and lack, Minty was left to her own devices at a young age. Her father was an agricultural, timber, and shipping laborer on the plantation of Anthony Thompson, where members of the Green-Ross family lived until the mid or late 1820s. Her mother was put to work in the "big house" of the Thompsons (then likely in the home of the Brodesses when her young legal owner came of age). As much as they loved Minty and longed to tend to her, Ben and Rit were forbidden this right as long as their time belonged to others. "I grew up like a neglected weed," a mature Tubman told a journalist in the 1850s, "ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it." But as Tubman knew from observation as a child made to work outdoors, and from keeping her own farm and homestead after resettling in the North in her forties, weeds were the hardiest type of plants.

Minty's early childhood years were riddled with neglect. Before she reached the age of five, for hour upon hour, she had no one to watch her, soothe her, or teach her. She went about barely clothed and with her thick hair uncombed. As a four-year-old, Minty was often left "lying in that yard" while her mother "mucked" in the "big house." And these same years were also tinted by Minty's forced acclimation to a labor regimen far beyond her maturity level. Because her mother had to leave her own small children to cook for the family of their enslavers, Minty was tasked with caring for her younger siblings and infant brother-probably Ben, Rachel, and Henry. A small child herself, eager to play and romp and pretend, she treated her baby brother like a rag doll. Though age appropriate, this behavior was alarming, as Minty pretended the baby was a "pig in a bag" and held him upside down by the bottom of his "dress." Tubman remembered being so small when she swung the baby that his head and arms would brush against the cabin floor. She also recalled her feeling of anticipation before her mother would set out for the big house each day, leaving her on her own to explore and experiment.

Already at around four years old, Minty showed clear signs of willfulness. She relished being in charge of herself and having endless time to "play." But she was so young and ill-equipped to care for a baby that she could have accidentally harmed her brother. Her mother worked in the big house "late nights," leaving the infant to fuss and cry with only Minty to tend his needs. Minty would try to stop her brother's high-pitched wails by "cut[ting] a fat chunk of pork and toast[ing] it on the coals and put[ting] it in his mouth." One night, when her mother returned and saw the baby's lips stuffed with charred meat, she thought Minty had "done kill him." Rit must have been terrified, racked with guilt, and even angry with her daughter in that moment, imagining that she had lost a son to the conditions that forced her to leave one young child in the care of another. After correcting Harriet, Rit must have laid her tired bones down on the "board box" and "straw" that served as her bed, relieved that her babies still breathed, awakening the next day in a tangle of sweet children's limbs to renew the exhausting cycle of work and fear.
“In Night Flyer, Miles . . . resurrects Tubman’s spiritual life, considering her alongside not only intellectuals such as Frederick Douglass but also Black evangelists of the era. The little we know about Tubman’s motivations comes robed in Scripture and prayer—blinding garments for modern eyes, but Miles helps us see.” The New Yorker, Best Books of the Week

“In her deep examination of the world in which Tubman lived, Miles winds through the elusive history and the awesome mythology to find a real life figure more extraordinary than we ever knew before.” —CBS Sunday Morning

“[Night Flyer], like All That She Carried, is not an academic study of nineteenth-century Black history but a moving account of Tubman’s intellectual life . . . It reminds us of the redemptive possibilities of patriotism and religious belief, ideologies that today are too often associated with the reactionary rather than the radical.” The New Yorker

“Well-researched and endlessly readable, Night Flyer invites readers to experience the many sides of Harriet Tubman, most of which we’ve not fully understood until now. Miles focuses on her mysticism, knowledge of the natural world and boundless dedication to truth and liberation.” Ms. Magazine (Best Books of June)

“The lyrical biography we’ll need before Tubman — already more myth than person — begins gracing the $20 bill, starting in 2030.” The Chicago Tribune

“This book finds beauty in history's unanswerable questions.” Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Night Flyer adds needed texture to Tubman’s historical caricature.” Boston Globe

“An innovative vision … Through Tiya Miles’ meticulous research and an unwavering focus on Tubman’s humanity, Night Flyer has transformed a fantastical figure from a bygone time into an accessible, modern-day inspiration.” —Atlanta Journal Constitution
 
“With originality and flair, [Miles] sheds new light on Tubman’s remarkable story by setting her deeply in the context of her faith and within the natural world that offered her shelter and succour. … Miles brings Tubman to vivid and rounded life.” —Financial Times

“Miles is one of our greatest living historians and a beautiful writer to boot . . . As in all her work, Miles fleshes out the complexity, humanity, and social and emotional world of her subject.” The Millions, Most Anticipated

“A world-building enterprise, with a novel’s sensitivity and a poet’s sensibility rooted both in Tubman’s daily life and in her more mystical inclinations.” American Scholar

“In her trademark deeply researched, thoughtful and exquisite prose, Miles successfully avoids popular depictions of Tubman as a superwoman ‘prepackaged’ . . . With Night Flyer, Tiya Miles seems to transmit the weight of her subject’s hand and heart.” Bookpage (starred review)

“Miles goes beyond standard biographies by foregrounding two aspects of Tubman’s life that have rarely been analyzed together: her religious faith and her deep understanding of ecology . . . Miles’ thoughtful engagement with Tubman’s contemporaries allows her to place the icon within a proud lineage of Black female mystics and preachers. . . . A truly unique analysis.” Booklist
 
“National Book Award winner Miles chronicles and contextualizes Tubman’s work to lead enslaved people to freedom in the North, spotlighting her subject’s spiritual conviction and naturalistic know-how. . . . A notable, discerning contribution to the understanding of an American legend.” Kirkus

“Drawing on and extending accounts of Harriet Tubman’s life and memories, Tiya Miles’s Night Flyer situates Tubman as a thinker, dreamer, and doer. An intellectual, physical, and spiritual force embedded in multiple worlds—ecological, geographical, familial, dream, and spiritual—acquiring and acting on knowledge drawn from each of them. Beautifully conceived and written, Night Flyer speaks powerfully of the worlds Tubman navigated and refused, and to our own perilous times.” —Christina Sharpe, author of Ordinary Notes

Night Flyer anchors Harriet Tubman to the faith and ferocity that has made her beloved by generations of Americans. Tiya Miles continues to captivate readers with her luminous prose, her riveting attention to detail, and her continuing genius to bring the past to life. With imaginative engagement, she has offered us a window onto the world inhabited by Tubman and her people, and its crucial legacy for us today.” Catherine Clinton, author of Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom

“Transcending the boundaries of literary genre and academic discipline, Miles provides a brilliant meditation on the many worlds of Harriet Tubman—environmental, social, interior. Night Flyer is also a lyrical praise song to Tubman and those Black women preachers who melded religious faith with physical courage to fight for the liberation of Black bodies, minds, and spirits. A stunning achievement.” —Jacqueline Jones, author of No Right to an Honest Living: The Struggles of Boston’s Black Workers in the Civil War Era

About

“Groundbreaking...Through Tiya Miles’ meticulous research and an unwavering focus on Tubman’s humanity, Night Flyer has transformed a fantastical figure from a bygone time into an accessible, modern-day inspiration.” - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Though broad strokes of Tubman’s story are widely known, Miles probes deeper, examining her inner life, faith and relationships with other enslaved Black women to paint a deeper, more vibrant portrait of a historical figure whose mythic status can sometimes overshadow her humanity.” The New York Times

From the National Book Award–winning author of All That She Carried, an intimate and revelatory reckoning with the myth and the truth behind an American everyone knows and few really understand


Harriet Tubman is among the most famous Americans ever born and soon to be the face of the twenty-dollar bill. Yet often she’s a figure more out of myth than history, almost a comic-book superhero. Despite being barely five feet tall, unable to read, and suffering from a brain injury, she managed to escape from her own enslavement, return again and again to lead others north to freedom without loss of life, speak out powerfully against slavery, and then become the first American woman in history to lead a military raid, freeing some seven hundred people. You could almost say she’s America’s Robin Hood, a miraculous vision, often rightly celebrated but seldom understood.

Tiya Miles’s extraordinary Night Flyer changes all that. With her characteristic tenderness and imaginative genius, Miles explores beyond the stock historical grid to weave Tubman’s life into the fabric of her world. She probes the ecological reality of Tubman’s surroundings and examines her kinship with other enslaved women who similarly passed through a spiritual wilderness and recorded those travels in profound and moving memoirs. What emerges, uncannily, is a human being whose mysticism becomes more palpable the more we understand it—a story that offers us powerful inspiration for our own time of troubles. Harriet Tubman traversed many boundaries, inner and outer. Now, thanks to Tiya Miles, she becomes an even clearer and sharper signal from the past, one that can help us to echolocate a more just and sustainable path.

Author

© Stephanie Mitchell
Tiya Miles is the Michael Garvey Professor of History at Harvard University, the author of five prizewinning works on the history of slavery and early American race relations, and a 2011 MacArthur Fellowship recipient. She was the founder and director of the Michigan-based ECO Girls program, and she is the author of the National Book Award–winning, New York Times bestselling All That She Carried. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. View titles by Tiya Miles

Excerpt

1

THE WATER

Wade in the water

Wade in the water, children

Wade in the water

God's going to trouble the water.

-"Wade in the Water,"
traditional spiritual

In a world like this, what can faith mean?

-Joanna Macy, "Faith, Power,
and Deep Ecology," 1991

To be taken is surely every child's nightmare. The boogeyman, the ghoul in the shadows, or the monster underneath the bed haunts the edges of tender minds, breaking through in the darkness. For Minty Ross, the girl who would one day become Harriet Tubman, that boogeyman was a demon called Slavery, and his powers to snatch children from the ones who loved them was tangibly, terribly real. She arrived in a world drenched in threat and neglect. These powerfully negative twin forces shaped her early consciousness, imparting an indelible sense of insecurity, shame, and purpose.

When Minty Ross was born around the year 1822, she entered a family shredded by the teeth of the demon Slavery. Her mother, Rit, and father, Ben, were each enslaved by different owners on the coast of the vastest estuary in the United States. These swelling shores and fertile lands that had long been home to Nanticoke, Choptank, and many other Indigenous peoples composed the Chesapeake Bay of eastern Maryland. Rit, whose full name was Harriet Green, had herself been born in the late 1780s to an African woman called Modesty, who had suffered the original break from kin during the Middle Passage when she was brought to this place from her home in the belly of a slaving ship. If Modesty arrived in Maryland in the 1770s, she may have come from Senegal, as ships originating from that French-colonized West African nation appear in a database of such voyages. Modesty conceived Rit with a man whose name has eluded historical records. Some historians suppose that this man may have been Modesty's enslaver. Rit had siblings who also entered the world behind a shroud of racial mystery.

Rit Green and Ben Ross were each conceived in states of bondage. Their ultimately loving marriage was as well. When Rit's legal owner, Mary Pattison Brodess (who had obtained Rit from her Pattison family line), remarried to the well-off entrepreneur and timber exporter Anthony Thompson after her first husband, Joseph Brodess, died, she moved some of the people she owned to Thompson's plantation. Rit and Ben were then residing in physical proximity on the Thompson estate, a large property of field, forest, and marshy land amounting to approximately one thousand acres. During the long, hard hours spent in one another's company, they formed a lifelong bond. Only after seeking permission from their respective owners did they marry, as enslaved people did not have license to wed without the consent of those who legally, though immorally, controlled their lives.

This bay, which had been forged by a meteor strike nearly 35 million years ago, was the place where the couple began to bring their own babies into the world-sons and daughters, nine in all, beautiful beacons of life. But Rit and Ben did not have custody of these children. According to Maryland statute, as was typical across the slaveholding South, a child inherited the status of their mother. And Rit was unfree. Through a complicated chain of events that had transpired over time-a white woman's widowhood, her remarriage, and later her son's inheritance-Rit Green Ross was property of Edward Brodess, the young son of Mary Pattison Brodess Thompson and her first husband, and so, too, were her children. The offspring of Rit and Ben therefore belonged to their mother's legal enslavers-the Pattison-Brodesses. And after Mary Brodess Thompson's premature death, the children would be managed by Anthony Thompson, her widower, until the young Brodess came of age.

The Green-Ross family, like so many other African American families, was born into the genealogical breach that Modesty's forced exile from Africa had wrought. Members of their bloodline and loveline would always struggle with loss and heartache. Before Minty Ross crested in her mother's waters and pushed through the womb to glimpse the shadowed light of this world, she had probably already lost kin to the demon. On the Pattison plantation from which her mother hailed, enslaved girls, likely extended family members, had been sold. Minty would never know them, but she may have heard stories and feared future recurrences of familial division. While Ben and Rit had at first resided on the Thompson estate and started a family there, they would be separated around the year 1827-28 by Rit's legal owner. After relocating Rit and the children to his farm, Edward Brodess pursued various leasing arrangements and work assignments, sending Rit to reside off-site to labor for different "employers." As soon as the couple's children became old enough, or able to work at any task that would either secure their room and board or pay dividends to their legal owners, they were also sent away. Rit and Ben had no say in these decisions as family members were placed in an unpredictable chain of serial removes to other places in the area. Their shared family life was marred by constant disorientation and painful goodbyes.

Minty had been born a middle child in a period when the practice of slavery was changing in the Upper South state of Maryland due to the expansion of cotton agriculture to the west. Around the time of the American Revolution in the 1770s and 1780s, when fertile soils had been exhausted and the tobacco economy had faltered, slaveholders in the Chesapeake began looking to other financial opportunities. They turned first to the production of grain and later to the commodification of human laborers. By the nineteenth century, cotton production was extending farther south and west into the rich lands of Native American nations that would be seized by the United States in the "Indian Removal" era of the 1820s and 1830s. White opportunists and agriculturalists migrating into these newly opened lands sought to enlarge their labor forces. For slaveholders in the Upper South, unfree Black people represented easy earnings in this changing economic environment. Maryland farmers began taking advantage of the wealth stored in the bodies of their legal slaves. Some sold individuals into cotton country, separating families; many hired out African Americans to others, who could use their labor on a temporary basis. Slaveholders also diversified their economic operations, developing flourishing timber and canal construction industries that forcibly exploited unfree people for the worst jobs while also employing free Black workers. The owners of Minty's family adopted all these financial strategies. As the shape of chattel bondage shifted in Maryland, so did the population distribution. The percentage of free African Americans increased through manumission as well as escapes as individuals relocated to the large port city of Baltimore and as higher numbers of enslaved people were leased to work beyond their legal owners' estates.

Fear must have been an overriding emotion for Rit Green as she went about her daily labors in the late 1820s, caring for her own children as well as she could, keeping house for the family that possessed her, tending their children as commanded, and striving to maintain the inner strength that would enable her to rise the next morning. She could be sent away from her little ones at any time. Her children could be plucked from the physically barren but emotion-filled space of her one-room cabin. Minty Ross must have sensed, as she passed through toddlerhood, that her family was perennially poised on a dangerous precipice. At any moment, the family structure could come crashing down, breaking bonds and shattering the lives of parents and children alike. The demon Slavery had come for her kin before Minty first drew breath, and he had not relented.

Despite the odds against it in this context of trepidation and separation, Minty Ross knew familial love and care, so much so that one of her earliest memories was of parental tenderness in the material form of a wooden cradle. "In the eastern shore of Maryland Dorchester County is where I was born," a mature Harriet Tubman told Emma Telford, the white neighbor who wrote down the autobiographical testimony around the year 1905. "The first thing I remember, was lying in [the] cradle. You seen these trees that are hollow. Take a big tree, cut it down, put a bode [board] in each end, make a cradle of it and call it a 'gum. I remember lying in that there." Tubman's early memory was sensory. She recalled the sensation of her small, immeasurably fragile body pressing against the flesh of the felled tree. She may have associated this physical feeling with safety and shelter, much as she would experience the touch of a tree against her back during a snowstorm decades later. Tubman does not say so in her reminiscences, but this cradle was probably carved by her father, Ben, a skilled timberman and woodworker.

Like her father, Harriet Tubman would spend substantial time among trees during her youth. Her familiarity with the woods shows as she pauses in this recollection to specify the kind of tree that formed her cradle, as well as the method of making it. The steps she succinctly recounts in this passage would have been laborious. An unfree father like Ben had to make time for his family beyond his forced work hours for the enslaving family, carving out minutes just as he would coax forms from trees. He had to select a large tree of the correct species for the cradle-the versatile, aromatic sweet gum-then chop it down, smooth it out, and anchor it to end boards. The sweet gum was a deciduous tree common, but not predominant, in clearings and aged fields near the Chesapeake Bay. Standing on tall, grayish trunks typically ranging in size from 60 to 100 feet, sweet gums emitted a lemony mint aroma and dangled leaves shaped like stars. After their annual spring flowering, the trees dropped fruits with long stalks attached to brown balls covered by prickly points. Residents along the bay used this tree for numerous purposes. Indigenous people, who had lived in the area long before the arrival of English settlers, used the inner bark to treat ailments like diarrhea, flux, and dysentery in people as well as distemper in dogs. English colonists, relative newcomers to the region since the early 1600s, scraped resin from inside the bark to chew as gum and to treat illness. And it would seem from the evidence of Minty's cradle that African Americans used the sweet gum's hardwood to craft family furnishings. Overall, lumber was the principle use for this tree, which woodworkers transformed into all manner of containers and cabinets.

Surely the crafting of one of these sweet gums into a swaying crib that would hold and rock baby Minty was a labor of love. But perhaps this wooden cradle in which Minty lay as an infant would be remembered so clearly by the mature Harriet Tubman not just because it felt safe but also because it was the last space of bodily safety and emotional security that she would ever know from childhood through young adulthood. An enslaved child was afforded only a brief stint of innocence, starting from birth and ending with that devastating moment when, as a result of some observation, or more often a death or separation, the child could perceive who-and what-society said they were: chattel, property, slaves of others who deserved the dregs of life. Soon after this cradle memory, golden-hued, like a sunset, Tubman's recollections turn dark and disordered.

As an older woman, Harriet Tubman narrated events from her early life to biographers, supporters, and advocates and activists of the Underground Railroad network without a clear chronology, allowing the most striking, and often traumatic, occurrences to push forward in her accounts. For reasons that only she knew-perhaps the pain of remembered trauma, perhaps the prioritization of certain stories for select audiences in order to raise funds to continue her vital rescue work-Tubman did not always specify where she and her family lived when, and whether she resided on the plantation of her mother's enslaver's second husband, or on the grounds of someone who leased her, or on the land of her original enslavers' son as significant events occurred. What emerges as the clearest pattern from Tubman's early childhood remembrances is deprivation of parental presence due either to Rit's and Ben's labor-driven absence on the same grounds or to Minty's and Rit's forced relocations.

In this environment of absence, upheaval, and lack, Minty was left to her own devices at a young age. Her father was an agricultural, timber, and shipping laborer on the plantation of Anthony Thompson, where members of the Green-Ross family lived until the mid or late 1820s. Her mother was put to work in the "big house" of the Thompsons (then likely in the home of the Brodesses when her young legal owner came of age). As much as they loved Minty and longed to tend to her, Ben and Rit were forbidden this right as long as their time belonged to others. "I grew up like a neglected weed," a mature Tubman told a journalist in the 1850s, "ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it." But as Tubman knew from observation as a child made to work outdoors, and from keeping her own farm and homestead after resettling in the North in her forties, weeds were the hardiest type of plants.

Minty's early childhood years were riddled with neglect. Before she reached the age of five, for hour upon hour, she had no one to watch her, soothe her, or teach her. She went about barely clothed and with her thick hair uncombed. As a four-year-old, Minty was often left "lying in that yard" while her mother "mucked" in the "big house." And these same years were also tinted by Minty's forced acclimation to a labor regimen far beyond her maturity level. Because her mother had to leave her own small children to cook for the family of their enslavers, Minty was tasked with caring for her younger siblings and infant brother-probably Ben, Rachel, and Henry. A small child herself, eager to play and romp and pretend, she treated her baby brother like a rag doll. Though age appropriate, this behavior was alarming, as Minty pretended the baby was a "pig in a bag" and held him upside down by the bottom of his "dress." Tubman remembered being so small when she swung the baby that his head and arms would brush against the cabin floor. She also recalled her feeling of anticipation before her mother would set out for the big house each day, leaving her on her own to explore and experiment.

Already at around four years old, Minty showed clear signs of willfulness. She relished being in charge of herself and having endless time to "play." But she was so young and ill-equipped to care for a baby that she could have accidentally harmed her brother. Her mother worked in the big house "late nights," leaving the infant to fuss and cry with only Minty to tend his needs. Minty would try to stop her brother's high-pitched wails by "cut[ting] a fat chunk of pork and toast[ing] it on the coals and put[ting] it in his mouth." One night, when her mother returned and saw the baby's lips stuffed with charred meat, she thought Minty had "done kill him." Rit must have been terrified, racked with guilt, and even angry with her daughter in that moment, imagining that she had lost a son to the conditions that forced her to leave one young child in the care of another. After correcting Harriet, Rit must have laid her tired bones down on the "board box" and "straw" that served as her bed, relieved that her babies still breathed, awakening the next day in a tangle of sweet children's limbs to renew the exhausting cycle of work and fear.

Praise

“In Night Flyer, Miles . . . resurrects Tubman’s spiritual life, considering her alongside not only intellectuals such as Frederick Douglass but also Black evangelists of the era. The little we know about Tubman’s motivations comes robed in Scripture and prayer—blinding garments for modern eyes, but Miles helps us see.” The New Yorker, Best Books of the Week

“In her deep examination of the world in which Tubman lived, Miles winds through the elusive history and the awesome mythology to find a real life figure more extraordinary than we ever knew before.” —CBS Sunday Morning

“[Night Flyer], like All That She Carried, is not an academic study of nineteenth-century Black history but a moving account of Tubman’s intellectual life . . . It reminds us of the redemptive possibilities of patriotism and religious belief, ideologies that today are too often associated with the reactionary rather than the radical.” The New Yorker

“Well-researched and endlessly readable, Night Flyer invites readers to experience the many sides of Harriet Tubman, most of which we’ve not fully understood until now. Miles focuses on her mysticism, knowledge of the natural world and boundless dedication to truth and liberation.” Ms. Magazine (Best Books of June)

“The lyrical biography we’ll need before Tubman — already more myth than person — begins gracing the $20 bill, starting in 2030.” The Chicago Tribune

“This book finds beauty in history's unanswerable questions.” Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Night Flyer adds needed texture to Tubman’s historical caricature.” Boston Globe

“An innovative vision … Through Tiya Miles’ meticulous research and an unwavering focus on Tubman’s humanity, Night Flyer has transformed a fantastical figure from a bygone time into an accessible, modern-day inspiration.” —Atlanta Journal Constitution
 
“With originality and flair, [Miles] sheds new light on Tubman’s remarkable story by setting her deeply in the context of her faith and within the natural world that offered her shelter and succour. … Miles brings Tubman to vivid and rounded life.” —Financial Times

“Miles is one of our greatest living historians and a beautiful writer to boot . . . As in all her work, Miles fleshes out the complexity, humanity, and social and emotional world of her subject.” The Millions, Most Anticipated

“A world-building enterprise, with a novel’s sensitivity and a poet’s sensibility rooted both in Tubman’s daily life and in her more mystical inclinations.” American Scholar

“In her trademark deeply researched, thoughtful and exquisite prose, Miles successfully avoids popular depictions of Tubman as a superwoman ‘prepackaged’ . . . With Night Flyer, Tiya Miles seems to transmit the weight of her subject’s hand and heart.” Bookpage (starred review)

“Miles goes beyond standard biographies by foregrounding two aspects of Tubman’s life that have rarely been analyzed together: her religious faith and her deep understanding of ecology . . . Miles’ thoughtful engagement with Tubman’s contemporaries allows her to place the icon within a proud lineage of Black female mystics and preachers. . . . A truly unique analysis.” Booklist
 
“National Book Award winner Miles chronicles and contextualizes Tubman’s work to lead enslaved people to freedom in the North, spotlighting her subject’s spiritual conviction and naturalistic know-how. . . . A notable, discerning contribution to the understanding of an American legend.” Kirkus

“Drawing on and extending accounts of Harriet Tubman’s life and memories, Tiya Miles’s Night Flyer situates Tubman as a thinker, dreamer, and doer. An intellectual, physical, and spiritual force embedded in multiple worlds—ecological, geographical, familial, dream, and spiritual—acquiring and acting on knowledge drawn from each of them. Beautifully conceived and written, Night Flyer speaks powerfully of the worlds Tubman navigated and refused, and to our own perilous times.” —Christina Sharpe, author of Ordinary Notes

Night Flyer anchors Harriet Tubman to the faith and ferocity that has made her beloved by generations of Americans. Tiya Miles continues to captivate readers with her luminous prose, her riveting attention to detail, and her continuing genius to bring the past to life. With imaginative engagement, she has offered us a window onto the world inhabited by Tubman and her people, and its crucial legacy for us today.” Catherine Clinton, author of Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom

“Transcending the boundaries of literary genre and academic discipline, Miles provides a brilliant meditation on the many worlds of Harriet Tubman—environmental, social, interior. Night Flyer is also a lyrical praise song to Tubman and those Black women preachers who melded religious faith with physical courage to fight for the liberation of Black bodies, minds, and spirits. A stunning achievement.” —Jacqueline Jones, author of No Right to an Honest Living: The Struggles of Boston’s Black Workers in the Civil War Era

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