Saturday, September 3, 2011

Harriet Tubman and the leopard dreaming

She moves through the night woods on leopard feet, vanishing and reappearing. Her night vision guides her unerringly to the frightened people hiding among the sweet gums, or scrunched down inside a mudhole, aquiver for the sound of dogs or horses, coming after them. The leopard, osebo in the language of the Ashanti, is an impeccable hunter. It also knows how to hide.
In West Africa, the leopard is a powerful dreamtime ally. Up to the present day, there are tales of the abakwa, the sorcerer who can shapeshift into the body of a leopard, and is greatly feared because of the leopard’s stealth and delight in the kill.
     In my dreams of her, Harriet Tubman was not confined to the human sensorium. She could not only fly like a bird; in the swamps and forests of the New World, she could sense and move with the grace and precision of an African night hunter.
    Is this idle fancy?
    Franklin Sanborn, writing in 1863, described her as “the grand-daughter of a slave imported from Africa” with “not a drop of white blood in her veins.”
    Many years later, a reporter for the New York Herald called up these memories in an interview: “The old mammies to whom she told dreams were wont to nod knowingly and say, ‘I reckon youse one o’ dem Shantees, chile.’ For they knew the tradition of the unconquerable Ashantee blood, which in a slave made him a thorn in the side of the planter or cane grower whose property he became, so that few of that race were in bondage.”
Memories of gossip heard in childhood are not evidence that Harriet had Ashanti blood, but the story suggests that the Ashanti were known where she grew up, and she was associated with them in people’s minds. The Ashanti, a warrior people of the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana) built a powerful kingdom after 1680 with a standing army of 80,000 men, half equipped with firearms. Their chiefs, called “masters of firepower” or simply “big men”, took slaves from enemy tribes and sold them to the Europeans in the trading ports via Hausa middlemen; they boasted that no Ashanti could ever be made a slave. Nonetheless, it is likely that some Ashanti were captured and sold by their enemies.
The shipping records of the Chesapeake slave trade suggest that Harriet’s ancestors were brought to America from this part of West Africa. Nearly all of the slaves brought to Maryland ports came direct from Africa, and the vast majority came on big London vessels that picked up their cargoes along the Gold Coast or from Upper Guinea. Maryland planters were constantly asking for slaves from the Gold Coast; they had a reputation for strength and stamina and craftsmanship.
West African slaves brought to Maryland’s Eastern Shore did not lose their identity and traditional practices overnight. Recent archeology shows the survival of key elements of West African culture under slavery in North America: in the miniature boats and other items placed in graves, in the bones and carved objects used in divination kits. When Minty Ross was growing up, the Christianization of African slaves had barely begun.
Harriet said she inherited special gifts – including the ability to travel outside the body and to visit the future – from her father, who “could always predict the future” and “foretold the Mexican war”. [Sanborn, also Bradford, Scenes 79-80]. She spent a lot of time with Ben Ross in the timber gangs, splitting and hauling wood for the Chesapeake schooners. In their quiet times in the woods, maybe they revived something of the atmosphere of the Sacred Forest of the Ashanti, and the practice of West African dream trackers accustomed to operating outside the body, sometimes in the forms of animals.
We have an interesting source on Ashanti dreaming in Robert S. Rattray, a British “government anthropologist”. A few months before the New York Herald announced Harriet’s “Shantee” roots, Rattray was rowed ashore to the sweaty, dusty coastal city of Accra, on his way to the Ashanti homeland.. Rattray became a passionate student of the Ashanti, who called him “Red Pepper” because of his blazing red hair. He was a Scot who went native in a big way, dancing as wildly as a woman possessed (according to one of his critics) and also “chasing after” African women (according to another). Though sometimes baffled by the mobility of consciousness among the West Africans he interviewed, he did his best to record Ashanti dream practices in a weighty 1927 study titled Religion and Art in Ashanti.
“To the Ashanti mind,” Rattray explains, “dreams are caused either by the visitations of denizens of the spirit world, or by spirits, i.e. volatile souls of persons still alive, or by the journeyings of one’s own soul during the hours of sleep.” In the Ashanti language, “to dream” is so dae, which literally means “to arrive at a place during sleep” – implying travel.
For the Ashanti, what happens during these dream travels are real events. If you sleep with another man’s wife, for example, you are held to be guilty of adultery and may be punished for it.
Flying is a common experience in Ashanti dreams. “If you dream that you have been carried up to the sky…and that you have returned to the ground…that means long life.” This certainly held true for Harriet Tubman, who lived to be ninety-one.
Rattray describes an Ashanti practice for disposing of a “bad” dream by confiding it in a whisper to the village rubbish dump, which may also be the communal latrine.
His account of the practices of Ashanti dream hunters may have direct bearing on our understanding of how Harriet Tubman dreamed. One of his informants described how his dead brother guided him on the hunt. “I often dream of my brother who was a hunter, and he shows me where to go. Any antelope I kill, I give him a piece with some water.”
The same man’s dead uncle gave him dream prescriptions. When a child was ill in the house, his deceased uncle showed him some leaves to administer as part of the medicine; “I did so and the child recovered.”
Like other indigenous peoples, the Ashanti believe that if you are not in touch with your dreams, you are not in touch with your soul. “If one does not dream for eighty days, it means that one will become mad.”

Drawing: "Harriet Tubman with Guides" by Robert Moss (2003)
For more on Harriet Tubman and how she used dreaming to guide escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad, please read The Secret History of Dreaming by Robert Moss, published by New World Library.

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