Standing on the Shoulders of Harriet Tubman:
Presented by Reverend Gloria White-Hammond
Women of Courage Lecture Series
BRC Event Summary Report
Between the summer of 2001 and January of 2005, The Reverend Gloria White-Hammond made six trips to southern Sudan. The Harriet Tubman Lecture on Human Rights took place on the eve of her seventh trip. In the spirit of Harriet Tubman, White-Hammond has been involved in securing the freedom of 10,000 women and children who were enslaved during two decades of civil war in Africa’s largest country, Sudan. In 2002, she founded My Sister's Keeper, a human-rights group organized to support women of southern Sudan in their efforts toward the reconciliation and reconstruction of their communities. White-Hammond is a pediatrician at Boston’s South End Community Health Center who has also worked as a medical missionary in several African countries including South Africa, Côte D’Ivoire, and Botswana. Since 1997, she has been the co-pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston, where she serves as founder of, and consultant to, the church-based creative writing/mentoring ministry, Do the Write Thing, a program designed to empower high-risk adolescent females of African-American descent.
With her lecture entitled “Standing on the Shoulders of Harriet Tubman: I Am My Sister’s Keeper,” White-Hammond became the fourth speaker in the Women of Courage Lecture Series. Established in 2002 as a collaboration between the Boston Research Center and the Wellesley Centers for Women, each annual lecture celebrates an American woman in history and a counterpart in contemporary times who has stood up for fundamental human values such as economic justice, nonviolence, environmental ethics, and human rights. The series was inspired by BRC founder Daisaku Ikeda’s strong belief that the voices of women will open the way to a century of life. In Dr. Ikeda’s words, “The conversation of women of keen perception who are sensitive to the feelings of others has the power to open even the most heavily barricaded heart. It is invariably women’s cries for justice that move people to action and change the times.”
Susan McGee Bailey, director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, welcomed the speaker and the diverse audience. “Our speaker tonight embodies the same commitment to the abolition of slavery as Harriet Tubman,” Bailey said. She also recognized White-Hammond’s “tireless efforts on behalf of all people in the world.”
Virginia Straus read a poem about Tubman by Eloise Greenfield, a poem that White-Hammond used to read to her daughters:
After recounting Tubman’s exploits, the poem ends with the refrain:
Straus then reviewed the commonalities between Tubman and White-Hammond, emphasizing that “They are both deeply religious people—religious in the sense evoked by this comment from philosopher Karen Armstrong, ‘Religion is not about belief; we’ve got hung up on that concept since the Enlightenment. Religion is about doing things that change you.’”
She also noted Tubman’s deep attachment to family and people, rather than to “an abstract cause,” noting that “For White-Hammond, her courage arose through human connection, too.” As she summarized the speaker’s association with the Sudan, Straus explained that “Connection [with people] led both Tubman and White-Hammond to their life purpose—a strong sense of calling that, in both cases, seems to have been motivated by a combination of prayer, vision, and intergenerational responsibility.”
The Reverend Gloria White-Hammond began her remarks with a quote from Sir Isaac Newton that acknowledged the interconnectedness of humanity and the immensity of the debt we owe to those who came before us. Referring to the title of her lecture, she noted that over 325 years ago the famous physicist wrote, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Our interconnectedness, our debt of gratitude, and the responsibility we, in our turn, have to make a difference were the themes of White-Hammond’s inspiring lecture at Wellesley College. As a freedom fighter, she explained that she has never forgotten that her own ancestors were slaves, men and women who never gave up hope, who kept in mind that one day there would be a descendant like her: privileged, educated, compassionate, and a crusader for human rights.
As she spoke of her work in Africa, White-Hammond invoked the refrain popularized during the American Civil Rights Movement: “We shall overcome some day. Deep in my heart I do believe that we shall overcome some day.” She then pointed out that slavery continues today with over 27 million people in bondage worldwide. “Slaves everywhere are literally dying to overcome,” she said, adding that governments and people who do nothing about this are guilty of “functional complicity.”
As she acknowledged her husband Ray, who was in the audience, as “my love, my friend, the ‘wind beneath my wings,’ and the one who makes me believe I can fly,” Gloria White-Hammond also had some accolades for the audience that had ventured out on a frigid winter evening: “You are the frozen chosen,” she said. The warmth of her verbal embrace and the moving accounts of Sudanese women and children with whom she has worked made a single village of the listeners gathered to hear her words.
The speaker then explained that the Sudan has been at war against itself most of the time since 1956 and is, therefore, “the longest running civil war on the African continent” with over 2 million dead, including 70,000 in the past two years, and 4 million people displaced. Violence and human suffering have been concentrated in the south and in the western region of Darfur as the complicated racial, ethnic, political, religious, and economic conflict has dragged on. A feature of the conflict has been the practice of Arab Muslims in the North raiding the indigenous African villages of the South, killing men, kidnapping boys for soldiering, raping women, and then taking many women and children back to the North as slaves where they become domestic servants and/or concubines.
Initially, White-Hammond and her husband agreed to make a trip to the Sudan in response to an invitation from their friend and colleague, TV journalist Liz Walker, who had been invited to travel under the auspices of the Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group. “Quite frankly, I was reluctant to go,” she said. “But my husband could hardly contain his excitement.” Wanting to share the experience with him, and not wanting her friend Liz to be the “only girl” on the trip, she was eventually persuaded to go along. As White-Hammond showed WBZ-4 film footage narrated by Walker, the mission of the trip was made clear: “We went to the Sudan to ask one question: How can we support the women and babies who have survived the genocide? How can we be our sister’s keeper?”
White-Hammond was, admittedly, ill prepared to confront the crisis awaiting her. “I wasn’t prepared for the stories of unconscionable abuse,” she said. Among them, she recalled a young woman with two small children who was forced to carry loot on the trek North after her village was raided. She expressed her worries about the safety of her little children, who might get away from her if she had to carry loot instead of them. “They [the raiders] solved the dilemma for her,” White-Hammond explained. “The quite simply shot her children to death.” And then there was the little enslaved boy charged with looking after cattle. When an animal ran off and he was unable to catch it, his Master was so incensed that he chopped the child’s nose off with an axe, leaving him permanently deformed.
As her attention shifted from such horrors to the plight and hope of the Sudanese people, White-Hammond began to see herself as a person who could help. As the practice and conditions of enslavement became clear, she worked with people from the large Dinka tribe, though many people from other tribes have also been enslaved. Part of the work involved “facilitating an underground railroad” not unlike that of Harriet Tubman’s work in nineteenth-century America. White-Hammond helped to raise funds and worked on the ground to buy back the freedom of approximately 10,000 people, mostly women and children. “You too could have purchased the freedom of a woman for a mere $33,” she told the audience. “A cow, however, would cost $100.”
As she described the process and showed images of hundreds of slaves waiting under trees to be freed, White-Hammond shared her difficulty in dealing with the controversy generated by slave redemption, which has been criticized for creating a market for slaves. “For me to be engaged in an activity that is controversial is very un-Gloria,” she said, smiling broadly. Her main goal was simply to return people to their villages so that they could rebuild their communities.
After years of war, the challenges of community building are great. Illiteracy is 90 percent or higher and children who have been enslaved and abused, who have known only war, have lost their sense of efficacy. Even the recent peace treaty, while encouraging, leaves a great deal unresolved as people attempt to rebuild their lives in refugee camps. Again and again, she returns to the question: How can we be our sister’s keeper?
The answer seems to reside in basic but significant steps that include “showing up” to bear witness and listening with compassion in order to find out what the women need most now. In one village, for example, a wheel for grinding wheat and sorghum has been provided as the centerpiece of a micro-enterprise project. This simple technology reduces a once all-day task to only 20 minutes. Schools for girls are also being established. And a sponsorship now exists for a Sudanese physician to come to Beth Israel Hospital in Boston to specialize in the treatment of HIV/AIDS. While some may see all this as “a drop in the bucket,” the co-pastor, with her husband Ray Hammond, of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston said, “Yet, if we work, the bucket can be half full.”
The experience of the Sudan has changed White-Hammond. “My grief and outrage have become exponential,” she confided. “I had left the land of the free and arrived in the home of the brave.” But like Harriet Tubman, she feels “a sense of calling” to work with the women who are trying to rebuild their lives and communities in the wake of slavery, even though the “epiphany” of this calling came to her through a process of inner struggle. It was on her second trip in 2002, when she was traveling without her friend or husband and feeling somewhat isolated as the only woman in the group, that she found her position “really, really hard.” She described the heat and discomfort, the bugs and dirt, the gunshots that interrupted her sleep. Echoing the title of a popular children’s book, she described her fifth day on that trip as a “Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day” that brought her to a turning point. “What in the world am I doing in this place?” she wondered. Faced with enormous human suffering all around her she felt “utterly overwhelmed with a sense of inadequacy.” Conscious of the possibility of violence as she tried to deliver humanitarian relief in the midst of a war zone, her thoughts and values came into focus. “I realized that I was in exactly the place I needed to be,” she said. “There comes a time when you hit a wall [in life] and you decide you’ve got to make a choice about whether you’re going to go forward and make a difference, or be still.”
To underscore this point, she told a story of the Jewess Esther from the Old Testament of the Bible. Having won a “beauty contest,” Esther was chosen to marry the king and live in the palace, her family origin disguised. Then an edict was issued requiring that all Jews be killed. Her cousin Mordecai came to Esther and asked her to go to the king and plead with him to reverse the edict. She equivocated, knowing that going to the king without being summoned could result in her death. Mordecai cautioned her not to think that because she was living in the palace, she would be spared. As White-Hammond retold the story, she quoted Mordecai as saying, "Do not imagine that you alone of all the Jews will escape because you are in the royal palace. If you remain silent at such a time as this, relief and deliverance for the Jews will appear from another quarter, but you and your family will perish." [Est. 2:13-14]
For Esther, the moral dilemma came down to a thought-provoking question that White-Hammond quoted from scripture in a hushed voice: “Who knows whether it is not for such a time that you have come to royal estate?” [Est. 2:14-15] In response to this pivotal question, Esther decides to gather her friends together and fast for three days, then go to the king. “If I perish, I perish,” she says as she prepares to face her fate.
With her strong Christian faith, and the example of her slave ancestors, Gloria White-Hammond found the moral courage she needed to continue her work, even in the face of danger. She realized that she was “standing in the same place that Harriet Tubman had stood, and Rosa Parks, and Fannie Lou Hamer,” people she referred to as “sheroes.”
She also elaborated on the metaphor of sowing seeds and sustaining hope. “When you plant seeds you want to see those seeds bear fruit. But maybe this will happen later and you won’t see it. So, don’t give up. I try to let God be God, and I do the best I can while I can. You can’t make anyone do the right thing and you can’t keep anyone from doing the wrong thing. All you can do is be an example and offer encouragement.”
With these ideas in mind, she shared a personal example from her medical practice of a young teen-age patient who became pregnant. Her family forced her to get an abortion, hoping she would turn her life around. But the girl continued to struggle. White-Hammond refused to give up on her; she went to court with her and helped her at school. When the girl became pregnant again and decided to have the child, White-Hammond thought she had failed completely, because the girl was clearly not going to be able to accomplish her dreams. But years later, the young woman’s child went to college and so the troubled teen was able to grow and give to her child what she was not able to give herself. White-Hammond’s point was that the seeds she planted in the girl’s life showed up in the next generation. Nothing was wasted, she seemed to say. “If I do something good today, maybe someday it will make a difference,” she said.
She also spoke of her sense of responsibility, her desire to share the gifts and advantages of her own life with others and help the world realize the vision of her own ancestors for the future they would never see. “The privilege of waking up each morning on this side of freedom comes with responsibility,” she said. “I am my sister’s keeper.” Acting on this realization, in 2002 Gloria White-Hammond founded a human-rights group organized to support women of southern Sudan called My Sister’s Keeper. She is also founder of and consultant to the church-based creative writing and mentoring ministry, Do the Write Thing, a program designed to empower high-risk adolescent females of African-American descent. “We need to let young women know that we can’t turn a deaf ear or a blind eye,” she said.
Even though a peace agreement was signed early in 2005 between the government of Sudan and the rebel forces of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, she encouraged those present to pressure the UN to provide food and medicine to the Sudan, and to work to end the atrocities occurring there. “We must maintain the pressure for continuing dialogue and we must seek accountability for what has happened,” she said. To keep the focus on Sudan, she also suggested writing letters, donating funds, and participating in divestment campaigns. Because security is precarious, she also urged prayer for the people of Sudan.
“Their capacity for hope is unbelievable,” she said. And when she asked them how they had sustained hope during their enslavement, they replied that it had never occurred to them that they wouldn’t be free some day. This reminded her of Nelson Mandela, whose autobiography she had read recently. She had always wondered how he could spend 27 years in prison and not go crazy. But like the Sudanese, he said it never occurred to him that he wouldn’t be free someday, or that Apartheid wouldn’t be eliminated.
Concluding her remarks, Gloria White-Hammond once again invoked a freedom song, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around. Gonna keep on walking, keep on talking, on freedom’s trail,” she said. Just as Tubman had become “the hope and dream of the slave,” she has decided to offer herself as this dream for those in Sudan who need her.
In the question and answer period that followed, White-Hammond was asked about the challenges of assimilation for slaves returning to their villages. “Rejection is foreign to the villages,” she replied. She explained that children whose families had been killed were often “assigned” a family. Elaborating on this, she noted that the way they feel about other people in the community is “radically un-American” because it is taken for granted there that everything will be shared, from food and land to love itself. Unlike many cultures, even raped women are accepted into the community, not rejected as tainted. “Rejecting these women would be like rejecting a part of themselves,” she explained. An illustration of Sudanese community values was offered with a story of food aid being dropped in a village. Although everyone was hungry, special consideration was given to the former slave women, because it was understood that they had no way yet to earn money to buy food. And so the food was distributed to them first and everyone else got what was left over.
A young Brandeis University student from Sudan thanked the speaker and the audience for caring about her country and her people who are “in a very dark place,” noting that she thinks of her people back in the Sudan all the time. She emphasized how moved she was by White-Hammond’s comments about the hope the Sudanese people feel. Similar sentiments were voiced by a Nigerian woman in the audience, who said that she was surprised to see any group of people in the United States give their attention to Africa and really care about the people there, and how good that sincere attention feels for her, as an African.
As the members of the audience dispersed into the cold night, the arid landscape of Sudan and the plight of its people remained on their minds. Gloria White-Hammond’s words and images had revealed human suffering, and so a deep well of compassion had been tapped. Her commitment to the struggle for community half a world away gave voice to possibility, and so the distance between America and Sudan was no longer measured in miles, but in courage. “Slavery anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere,” she said. And suddenly, the yearnings of a people half a world away and those who envision a better America were one and the same.
Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue