The poem uses direct and easy-to-understand language. There are no examples of words, phrases, or ideas that couldn’t be grasped by a wide variety of readers.
‘Harriet Tubman’ is an important and effective way of remembering what stakes Black men and women during Tubman’s time faced.
Explore Harriet Tubman
‘Harriet Tubman’ by Eloise Greenfield is a thoughtful depiction of Tubman’s life and achievements.
The poet spends the first stanza describing how Tubman knew she wasn’t meant to be a slave and that she wasn’t going to stay that way. She said goodbye to her friends and ran away, taking nothing with her. She made it to the North and her freedom and then returned to save 300 others, over a total of nineteen trips.
You can read the full poem here.
Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff
And wasn’t going to stay one either
In the first stanza of ‘Harriet Tubman,’ the speaker begins by noting that Tubman did not take anything with her when she ran away in pursuit of her freedom. She wasn’t “scared of nothing neither.” She knew that it wasn’t her destiny to be a slave, and she wasn’t going to stay that way. These are all clear declamatory statements that leave no room for interpretation. Tubman was determined to do what needed to be done.
“Farewell!” she sang to her friends one night
She was mighty sad to leave ’em
But she ran away that dark, hot night
Where those mean men couldn’t find her
In the second stanza, the speaker goes on to tell the reader what Tubman did on the night she left her friends. She said “farewell” one night and then “ran away” into the “dark, hot night.” These simple examples of imagery are quite effective. They allow the reader to feel a bit of what Tubman would’ve felt when she left.
She had to keep running “With the slave catchers right behind her.” This evokes a clear feeling of fear and anticipation. She knew that there was no way she could stop till she got to the North. There, she’d find her freedom. The use of simple phrases like “mean men” in the last line of this stanza makes it clear that this poem can be enjoyed by any reader. It’s not aimed exclusively at adult readers.
Nineteen times she went back South
To get three hundred others
Didn’t come in this world to be no slave
And didn’t stay one either
The final stanza concludes Tubman’s story. It describes how she kept going back to the South, risking her safety, nineteen times. She freed three hundred “Black sisters and brothers” during her trips. She used her fearless attitude to save lives and make a permanent mark on American history.
And didn’t stay one either
The phrase “And didn’t stay one either” is repeated twice at the end of the poem. This is quite powerful. It is a way of driving home how important what Harriet Tubman did was. She freed herself and many others through sheer determination.
Throughout ‘Harriet Tubman,’ the poet engages with themes of freedom, determination, and perseverance. These come through clearly as they describe Tubman’s life and how much courage it took to fight for her freedom. While pursued by slave catchers, she made it all the way to the North. Most people would stop there and relish their freedom, but she decided to return over and over again to save those she cared about.
Structure and Form
‘Harriet Tubman’ by Eloise Greenfield is a three-stanza poem that is divided into stanzas of uneven lengths. The first has four lines, the second: eight, the third: eight, and the fourth: only one. These lines also follow a loose simple rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing end sounds as the poem progresses.
Greenfield makes use of several literary devices in ‘Harriet Tubman.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one, two, and three of the first stanza.
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “nothing neither” in line two of the first stanza and “Farewell” and “friends” in line one of the second stanza.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses especially vibrant descriptions. For example, “he ran away that dark, hot night.”
The themes are determination/perseverance, and freedom. The speaker is proud of what Tubman accomplished and spends the lines celebrating her achievements. They put an emphasis on how hard it was to escape and the bravery it took to help others gain their freedom too.
Greenfield wrote this poem in order to share Tubman’s story with a new, and perhaps younger, audience. The poem tells the facts of her life in very simple terms that are easily understood by a wide variety of readers.
The tone is celebratory and appreciative. The speaker is somewhat in awe of Tubman and what she did all those decades ago. They make sure to emphasize the fact that she knew she wasn’t meant to be a slave and worked to achieve that for others as well.
The meaning is that no matter the circumstances if one works hard and is as fearless as Tubman was all those years ago, anything is possible. One might also interpret the meaning that risking one’s life for others is a worthy thing to do.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Harriet Tubman’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘The Death of Slavery’ by William Cullen Bryant – was written just after the American Civil War ended. It talks about the personified slavery, whose reign has ended, and the slaves are freed from shackles of bondage.
- ‘Address to Slavery’ by Samuel Wright – was published in The Weekly Anglo-African on 18th February 1860. It is an impassioned address to the personified “slavery.”
- ‘Harriet Beecher Stowe’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar – was inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as it was one of the first works of literature to shed light on the brutality and cruelty of slavery.