Harriet’s Daughter

“How does a young black teenager manage to take control of her life? Like heroine Harriet Tubman, Margaret, the spunky young woman of Harriet’s Daughter takes control with imagination, determination and a lot of help from older women in her community”

Harriet’s Daughter was published in 1988 by Heinemann (England) and The Women’s Press (Canada). This book was one of two runners up in the 1989 Canadian Library Association Prize for children’s literature; it was also first runner up in the Max and Greta Abel Award for Multicultural Literature, City of Toronto Book Award Finalist 1995 and **STAR CHOICE** of Educational Impact (Nov ’89).

Harriet’s Daughter has been critically acclaimed and much reviewed as ” a lively and insightful adolescent novel…about friendship, coming of age and identity”, a story “told with warmth, humour and skill.” that is “riveting, funny, and technically accomplished.” The dialogue has been said to come “right off the page –you’ll find yourself reading it aloud”. It makes “the fact of being black a very positive enhancing experience”, and is a book “about friendship, loyalty and love that everyone from nine to ninety can enjoy.”

We quickly get a clear picture of Margaret and her life as she sees it:

Back then life sure sucked for me: life sucked, my parents sucked, especially my father. My brother sucked and my sister sucked, even the Cosby show sucked – I mean everybody on it was so perrrrfect, cute, rich and black. I mean how could anybody be so lucky, and with parents that understood them and talked and even discussed THE IMPORTANT THINGS OF LIFE? It was all too much, especially living with a sister who fancied she was a clone of Denise Cosby, and bloody, bloody hell, she was pretty, prettier than me. Thank God she was fat, well plump, and she wasn’t rich; but she (my sister) – was too much, really too much with her make-up and designer jeans, and all that gunk she put in her hair to make her look like Denise Cosby. So I grunted in agreement with Ti-cush; life did suck, it really did, and I had done nothing to deserve this from life, nothing. I was always being told that I was the one with ‘the brains in the family’, but I would willingly have given that up for what mattered in this world – style and class.

(p.2) ©Marlene Nourbese Philip 1988

Her meeting with Zulma, just arrived in Canada from the Caribbean:

‘Tobago?’ She nodded, and didn’t say anything else. She wasn’t crying any longer, but she held her head down; her braids and ribbons stuck up and out over her neck. I had never in my life seen such big, shiny ribbons, and never on anybody’s hair. I didn’t like her being so quiet, it made me feel worried. When she was crying, I felt I could help, but now she was so quiet I felt a little afraid. I wanted to ask her questions, about Tobago, and her gran, but felt I shouldn’t. I could hear my mother’s voice: ‘Don’t ask so many questions Margaret. It’s rude!’ I decided it wasn’t a good time to be rude. Instead I said to her, ‘Know how to make angels?’ She looked at me with a quick sideways glance – I think she was looking to see if I was making fun of her. I wasn’t, so she shook her head. I dropped to the ground, on my back, quickly moved my arms up and down in the snow, opened and closed my legs a couple of times, then stood up and pointed. ‘See,’ I said, ‘an angel!’

‘Look at dat!’ she said. ‘It just like dose Christmas cards Gran use to get from Canada and England. It an angel for true. Me want make one too.’ She flung herself laughing on to the snow-bank, and began moving her arms and legs like she had just seen me do. That was how our friendship got started making angels in the snow.

(p.5) ©Marlene Nourbese Philip 1988

When I asked her on the way home that evening to teach me Tobago-talk (that was what I called it), she got all quiet and serious; she didn’t say anything for a while. Then :’Is what you want to talk like that for? You speak nice already.’

‘I like the way you talk. I want to talk like that. Sometimes I hear my mother on the phone with her Jamaican friends; when they get going I can hardly understand them.’
‘Your mother talk dialect?’
‘Yep, but she likes to pretend she doesn’t know how to; she
thinks it’s better to sound like a Canadian. In any case, after a while you begin to lose your accent you know, like you’re
doing.’ I nudged her and smiled.

‘Me? Never! Me never going lose me accent. I’se a Tobagonian and I’se proud of it.’
‘All right, all right, I’m sorry.’ I laughed.’I didn’t mean to insult you.’ It was real important to Zulma to believe in where she came from and who she was – Tobagonian. I had forgotten that. To say she was sounding less Tobagonian might mean she was growing away from her gran and Tobago. Her gran might not understand her. Yet I knew she liked her classes where she learned English, what I called flat English or plain English, no
hills or valleys.
‘Well, I want to talk Like you … if you’ll teach me.’
‘You serious?’
‘Uh huh, then I’ll be bilingual.’
‘Oh all right. When you want start”
‘Now, how would you say, “I want to go to the movies”” ‘Me a want go to de movies.’ ‘Me a want go to the movies.’ ‘No, not the but de, de movies.’ That was how our lessons in Tobago-talk started. She never said anything, but I knew that Zulma was very proud to be
teaching me her talk. I was always telling her stuff, and explaining to her how things went, like why it was important for
her not to ever wear those blue, satin ribbons again; but now she could teach me something. When we did our lessons in Tobago-talk she looked really happy

(p.11) ©Marlene Nourbese Philip 1988

I was spending a a lot of time thinking of Harriet Tubman and her life. I also thought about Harriet Blewchamp and how she managed to escape from a concentration camp – maybe she had a Harriet Tubman to help her. I made up secret codes that I, as Harriet, could pass to slaves who were trying to escape; with these codes, I could tell them when and where I was going to meet the slaves who wanted to run away. The codes were real simple. The brown cow needs milking meant that it wasn’t safe for them and me to get together. The hens not laying today; the old hound dog tired, he not hunting tonight – all these meant danger, or delay. Jack rabbit running scared; mocking bird going call tonight; crescent moon and full moon never shine together – these meant we could meet and I would lead them to freedom. If I was caught, I knew I was as good as dead, but I was going to get those slaves to freedom if it killed me.

I used to dress up in my mum’s long skirts and tie my head with her head-ties. It was when I was tying my head one day in my room that I got my chance to ask her about calling me Harriet. It was after school; she passed by my room and saw me struggling with the head-tie:

‘Is what you think you doing?’
‘Tying my head.’
‘For what?’
‘I’m pretending to be Harriet Tubman, that’s what.’
‘Who’s Harriet Tubman?’
‘A woman who brought slaves from the States to Canada all by herself too.’ By this time my mum was in my room sitting on a chair.
‘Come here, let me tie that for you.’ I went over to her and she
tied my head real neat and nice.
‘Gee Mum,’ I said, looking in the mirror, ‘that’s real nice.’
‘Yeeees …’ she pulled out the yes like it was chewing gum. She knew I was going to ask her something she didn’t want me to ask her.’Is this about Zulma?’
‘No, it’s about me – my name. I want to change it – to
‘Well, I Like Harriet Tubman. I think she was real wonderful. I want a name that means something to me – Margaret doesn’t mean anything to me at all. Also Mrs Blewchamp wanted me to have the name, Harriet.’
‘Margaret is your grandmother’s name; your father wanted you to have it.’
“I know that but it doesn’t mean anything to me.’
‘Why does your name have to mean something?’
‘I don’t know. Will you call me Harriet, will you? Say yes,
pleeease Mum.’

(p.47) ©Marlene Nourbese Philip 1988
Harriet’s Daughter has also been released by The Women’s Press as a 2 hour audio cassette featuring Ahdri Zhina Mandiela as Margaret and Alison Sealy-Smith as Zulma. (ISBN#0-88961-154-8). Available from the Author.