I was honored to preach and sing at a vigil today in celebration of the life and legacy of Jennifer Roberts: Freedom Fighter. Audio from the service (including sermon, songs, and shared memories) is here:
And text of the sermon is here:
“In Memory of Her”
Good afternoon. My name is Aaron Scott. I serve in The Episcopal Church and I first met Jennifer Roberts through POWER, Parents Organizing for Welfare and Economic Rights. We both served on the board in 2011 and even though the time we worked together was short, it was an honor and it changed me. Jennifer changed me. Right now, I’d actually like to take a step back and speak about one of the long-gone freedom fighters up here on our altar: Harriet Tubman. A giant upon whose shoulders we all stand, Jennifer included. In remembering Jennifer, it helps us to remember a few things about Harriet as well.
Harriet Tubman was a leader who lived with disabilities. Did you know this part of her story? In today’s common language we would call them significant physical and mental disabilities. She received a particular blow to the head during her enslavement that left her with seizures, hallucinations, blackouts, mobility impairment, and chronic pain for the rest of her life. She never learned to read or write.
In addition to working as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Tubman served as a spy and strategist for the Union Army during the Civil War. On June 2nd 1863 she led the largest liberation of enslaved people in US history while commanding Union forces in their raid of plantations along the Combahee River in South Carolina. She emancipated roughly 750 people. In that one day.
When the war ended and Tubman was on a train back to her family in New York, a conductor ordered her to move to the smoking car because she was black. She resisted, citing her status as a veteran. The conductor and other passengers forced her out anyway. As she did not go easily, they broke her arm in the process. She never stopped organizing, despite the lack of commitment and vision she often encountered from others in the post-war struggle. She lived out much of the remainder of her life in poverty. She was never granted a pension for her military service.
This is the same woman whose acquaintance John Brown was ecstatic to make, so overcome was he by her intelligence and her bearing. “General Tubman, General Tubman, General Tubman!” he exclaimed on the day they met. He used that title for her for the rest of his life. This is the same woman to whom Frederick Douglass wrote, in 1868:
You ask for what you do not need when you call upon me for a word of commendation. I need such words from you far more than you can need them from me, especially where your superior labors and devotion to the cause of the lately enslaved of our land are known as I know them. The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day—you in the night. I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes of being approved by the multitude, while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred, and foot-sore bondmen and women, whom you have led out of the house of bondage, and whose heartfelt, “God bless you,” has been your only reward. The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism… Much that you have done would seem improbable to those who do not know you as I know you.
This “seeming improbability”—it comes from an attitude that says nothing about Tubman and everything about the disgraced society in which she lived. There is no reason to be surprised by Harriet Tubman’s leadership. There is no reason to be surprised by Jennifer’s. Much of what Jennifer Roberts did would seem improbable to those who did not know her as we know her.
But we knew her, didn’t we?
Like Frederick Douglass and John Brown knew Harriet Tubman.
Did you know Jennifer Roberts?
She can’t hear you. Say it louder.
Did you know Jennifer Roberts?
Did you see her?
Did you love her?
Did she help you get free?
Don’t tell us what people with disabilities can’t do. Don’t tell us what poor people can’t do. Harriet Tubman did not grant-write or spell-check her way out of slavery. Social movements rely on all kinds of skills and all kinds of people but we, as people who saw and knew and loved Jennifer Roberts, we cannot afford to get it twisted about which skills are the mandatory ones: Courage. Truth-telling. Endurance. Generosity. Humility. Self-respect. An intelligence unconcerned with petty hang-ups over what looks and sounds marketable, because it is too devoted to what is right and what is effective for liberation.
These are skills, not personality traits. We are not born with them. They are disciplines we hone and practice. We cultivate them in our children and in one another. We choose them. Jennifer chose them, again and again and again. She chose us again and again and again, including when we did not particularly deserve her, and if there was a fine line to walk between devotion to the cause and risk to self, Jennifer chose to err on the side of believing in us and loving us. That is what made her a leader. That is what makes her soldier in the heavenly army of Harriet Tubman. That is what makes her a freedom fighter.
Tubman once described the moment she crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, on her first escape to freedom in the north. She said, “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.” We know Jennifer shared some golden moments with us. Snatches and glimpses of the other world that is possible, that is constantly breaking through. Right beneath the surface of this one, when we are brave enough to see it. I like to think all of Jennifer’s moments are like that now. That she herself lives in the goldenness just under the skin of this desolate time, restlessly waiting to break through into our hearts and minds with yet another “GREAT. IDEA.”
Harriet Tubman’s last words to her family, as she lay dying in 1913, were these: “I go to prepare a place for you.” Likewise, Jennifer has prepared a place for us. It is here. It is now. It is our birthright and our tremendous inheritance, and it lies below the surface of each moment and breath. If we claim it, if we pick up where she left off and reach for the promise of that other world—we will meet her there. She will be present: in our own disciplines of courage, truth-telling, endurance, generosity, humility, self-respect and intelligence. So whenever you do these things, do them in memory of her.
If you want a copy of our program from the vigil, it’s here: Program