Harriet was a fugitive slave and a notable abolitionist of the 19th century. She is the Underground Railroad conductor who linked up with the Abolitionists to help smuggle over 300 slaves through a network of hideouts into the free north. She also worked as a scout and as an undercover agent during the civil war and later as an advocate of women’s suffrage. In this paper, an attempt is made to analyze the psychosocial development of Harriet Tubman over her lifetime through a psychobiographical case study. Harriet’s lifespan is conceptualized within the theoretical lens of Erik Erickson’s eight stages of psychosocial development. The aim is to uncover and interpret Harriet Tubman’s life into an enlightening narrative depicting her psychosocial evolution throughout her lifespan.
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Psychosocial Development Stages
This section integrates Harriet Tubman’s life history with Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development.
Prenatal and Infancy (0-18 Months)
At this initial stage, the infant struggles with trust versus mistrust. The developmental crisis at this stage relates to trusting or mistrusting one’s environment, which depends on the quality of the mother-child relationship (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016). This relationship is not exclusively biological, but also social. The quality of the maternal interactions shapes the child’s development of trust or mistrust in his/her future environments. Mistrust stems from frustrations or deprivations that lead to feelings of inadequacy. In this case, the hope that the child’s desires/needs will be met helps him/her navigate through an environment of trust and mistrust and develop a sense of self.
When describing Harriet Tubman’s psychosocial development during the first stage, it is important to examine her relationship with the parents, especially with her mother. Harriet, initially called Araminta Ross, was born into slavery around 1920 as the fifth born in a family of eleven children of enslaved parents in Maryland. A couple – Thompson and Brodess – owned her parents, Rit and Ben, who worked as slaves in their plantation in Dorchester County. It is evident that Araminta had a close bond with her mother, Harriet ‘Rit’ Green, as an infant. She stayed with her parents until the age of five when she started working as a nanny in other homes. Not much is known about Rit to help develop deeper insights into Harriet’s relationship with her mother during the infancy stage.
As slaves, Harriet’s parents were always busy; the mother worked as a cook in Brodess’s household, while the father was a woodsman in Thompson’s shipbuilding factory. Therefore, Harriet’s four older siblings, Linah, Ritty, Soph, and Robert, helped raise her while the parents were engaged in their masters’ roles. The siblings’ role as the primary caregivers can be seen as the source of social influence on young Harriet. Considering the fact that Harriet’s three elder sisters were later sold to farms in the South, it can be concluded that her early upbringing involved different caregivers, which could have affected the development of a sense of trust.
Evidently, the level of Harriet’s interaction with her parents at an early age was low since she was a fifth born in a family of eleven and the enslaved parents had to work the whole day. The minimal parental attention coupled with the loss of her siblings (sold as slaves) would have impacted on her ability to trust her white masters in her later years. Since the mother was a slave, it can be concluded that she spent less time with Harriet. However, it is unclear whether Harriet was able to get over the developmental challenges of this stage successfully.
Early Childhood (18 months – 3 Years)
During the second stage of psychosocial development, the child begins to develop self-esteem and autonomy (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016). The stage is characterized by the development of autonomy versus shame. Erikson believed that at this stage, the child begins to learn new skills and distinguish good from bad on his/her own. Healthy development during this stage manifests as confidence and pride as the child explores his/her world.
The child can also feel shame if he/she is unable to complete certain tasks or learn new skills. Negative behaviors such as defiance and tantrums can also occur. Therefore, overprotective parents would hamper the development of autonomy or self-control. A healthy development during this stage results in a strong will that manifests as freedom of choice and self-control when faced with social constraints.
For Harriet Tubman, not much information is available about the social/environmental influences available in her early childhood. However, it is important to note that there were no significant changes in her life during the first and second stage of development. Her parents were still slaves and lived on Brodess’s plantation in Dorchester County. Therefore, the social/environmental experiences that Harriet went through in her early childhood influenced her personality development with regard to the evolution of autonomy versus shame and the strength of self-will.
Since the information on Harriet’s interaction with her social environment during early childhood is scanty, it may not be possible to ascertain how her interactions impacted on her personality development. Nevertheless, since Harriet’s parents were still enslaved, it can be concluded that her social influences came from her siblings who were the primary caregivers during the first and second stages of development. The problem with this assumption is that it does not indicate whether Harriet was able to overcome the developmental crisis, i.e., autonomy versus shame, occurring in early childhood. In addition, it would be difficult to state with certainty if Harriet developed the strength of self-will. Therefore, it is only by examining the later stages that we can ascertain the ability of Harriet to resolve crises associated with the early childhood stage.
Erikson held that the development of goodwill versus hate occurs at this stage (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016). Further, the ability to control oneself and become independent develops during early childhood. The important abilities acquired during this stage, i.e., “holding on and letting go” define one’s response to positive emotions from the adult (Weller & Lagattuta, 2013, p. 265). After escaping slavery with two of her brothers, Harriet resolved to travel to Pennsylvania and avoid further bondage, despite her siblings’ return to Maryland.
Therefore, Harriet’s escape from slavery in 1849 and leading role in Abolitionism epitomize her independence and a tendency to hold on to a cause she believed in. Retrospectively, she appears to have had a healthy development of autonomy and self-will during her early childhood.
Middle Childhood (3-5 Years)
The primary developmental crisis that occurs during this stage is initiative versus guilt (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016). Weller and Lagattuta (2013) point out that during middle childhood, the child starts to ‘take initiative’ in his/her daily life in a bid to understand and exercise a greater control of his/her environment. On the other hand, the child may begin to develop a sense of guilt because of failed attempts to control his/her world and that of others around them. In this case, the concept of initiative refers to the pervasive quality that entails hope and responsibility for one’s actions.
Initiative differs from autonomy in the sense that, besides a sense of independence, it includes the attempts to understand, plan, and execute a task/role in a bid to realize anticipated locomotor or intellectual goals (Weller & Lagattuta, 2013). The opposite of ‘initiative’ is guilt, which arises when the child’s expression of aggressive manipulation proves futile due to opposition from the parents or siblings. As a result, the child internalizes a strong sense of guilt.
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Harriet Tubman’s middle childhood was characterized by hardship and abuse under the system of slavery. She was hired out by Brodess as a nanny at the age five to care for the children of the slave masters in the neighborhood. Besides nursing babies, young Harriet also wound yarn, set muskrat snares, did household chores, and cut wood for the white families. As a child laborer, Harriet was sent home on several occasions for being weak/sickly, malnourished, or at odds with her employers. As a nanny, Harriet had to ensure that the baby did not cry by holding her throughout the night to avoid being whipped around the neck. Throughout her life, Harriet bore the scars of the punishment she underwent while caring for Miss Susan’s infant.
Evidently, Harriet was exposed to negative social experiences (cruelty) during her middle childhood that possibly impacted her ability to balance between initiative and guilt. Overcoming the middle childhood crisis (initiative versus guilt) requires one to establish a balance between the initiative or enthusiasm to accomplish certain goals and the propensity to be self-judgmental or self-guilty (Weller & Lagattuta, 2013). It is clear that Harriet never enjoyed nursing infants or doing household chores, which explains why her employers disliked, mistreated, and sent her home frequently. Therefore, it can be argued that the abusive social environment, withdrawal of familial love, neglect, and inadequate diet could have led to the internalization of a sense of guilt.
Further, Harriet received whipping for letting the baby cry, an experience that could have lowered her enthusiasm towards the slavery system. As Weller and Lagattuta (2013) note, the failure to give the child opportunities to develop ‘initiative’ would result in the child becoming emotionally handicapped. Harriet, during her middle childhood, experienced multiple instances of cruelty, which possibly affected her ability to take an aggressive initiative at this stage. However, her internalized sense of guilt could have been the impetus for her perilous attempt to free slaves, including family members, held in the south.
Latency Stage (5-12 Years)
The psychosocial crisis experienced during this stage is industry versus inferiority. The individual’s personality is highly dependent on the social influences occurring at this stage. During this stage, the “sexual and aggressive initiative” of the phallic phase is turned into constructive activities that conform to societal norms (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016, p. 117). As the child begins school, he/she engages in new activities, including learning new things and habits, which manifests as industriousness in a bid to receive praise. In addition, the child develops a concept of cooperation with others at this stage.
The attitudes of the parent/teacher define how the child develops and utilizes the acquired skills. A negative feedback from the parents/teachers would lead to the development of feelings of anger, hurt, and avoidance/revenge while positive feedback would lead to “feelings of competence and industry” (Peets, Hodges, & Salmivalli, 2013, p. 139). The feelings of industry result in competence in completing tasks.
Harriet, during her latency years, worked as a nursemaid in white households. She was frequently malnourished and sickly and sent back to her home. However, after making recovery she would again be hired out to other white homes to work as a domestic servant. At the age of seven, Harriet’s job included gathering ensnared muskrats. This new role meant that she was always wet; as a result, she caught measles at this age. At the age of eight, while working for another white family, she ate a lump of sugar belonging to her mistress. Subsequently, she escaped to avoid punishment, spending three days in a pigsty in the process. As an adult, she stated that she felt neglected during her early years.
At the age of 12, Harriet was deployed to work in the plantations. She was exposed to harsh physical work in Barrett’s fields. During this stage, her Christian faith began to develop. While working for Barrett, she was hit with a metal on the head when she tried to help a runaway slave escape from his owner. The injury left her with seizures, chronic sleepiness, and vivid dreams or visions. It is evident that Harriet’s life involved rigorous work as a nursemaid, as muskrat collector, and as a child slave in the fields. She had no time for play or study, as she never attended school nor did she interact with children of her own age. As a result, she was not exposed to the experiences expected at this stage.
Comparisons of acquired skills/knowledge with peers are common during this stage (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016). Harriet was holed up in white households as a slave. Her experiences, including rigorous work, could have reinforced Harriet’s sense of industry. Moreover, as a slave, she could not enjoy the warmth of a family, which could have affected the way she perceived herself relative to her white peers.
Her constant problems with her employers may have affected her sense of competence. The negative feedback from her masters, i.e., physical abuse (whipping), may have led to the development of a sense of inadequacy or inferiority. Therefore, due to abusive masters, rigorous work schedule, and limited opportunities for interaction with peers, it was likely Harriet did not achieve a healthy resolution of the crisis (industry vs. inferiority) during this stage.
Adolescence (13-18 Years)
The characteristic feature of the adolescence stage is identity vs. role confusion (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016). This stage is the period in which a person’s sense of identity develops out of accrued childhood experience. The adolescent has to wrestle with libido changes, which often results in the violation of societal/familial rules. Role confusion may arise if the adolescent fails to develop a cohesive sense of identity (Schwartz-Mette & Rose, 2012).
Further, contagion effects that mediate internalized behaviors in adolescents lead to the development of social relationships (Schwartz-Mette & Rose, 2012). Typically, adolescents engage in experimentation and floundering before they can settle on a clear sense of self-image. A successful resolution of the crisis manifests as sincerity and dedication to social relationships.
By the time Harriet reached puberty, her social environment was still the same as that of her childhood. As she grew stronger, she was sent out into the field. Her primary tasks involved forest work, tilling the fields with an ox-driven plow, and ferrying timber. The formation of a sense of identity could be have been affected by the social realities that Harriet was experiencing. Her masters did not respond favorably to her work, making it difficult for her to develop a clear sense of self-identity. Her workload increased during this stage. Further, her slave status meant that she could not attend school as other white adolescents or participate in normal social activities or interactions. As a result, Harriet may have experienced role confusion at this stage.
Erikson held that involvement in group activities and romantic relationships are some of the adolescent behaviors involved in the search for identity. Evidently, Harriet missed out on most of these activities, and therefore, must have struggled with social identity challenges. Arguably, her role in the field and later as a railroad conductor suggests that she developed an occupational identity instead.
Emerging Adulthood (19-30 Years)
The developmental crisis experienced during the sixth stage of development is intimacy versus isolation (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016). Emerging adulthood is characterized by a budding sense of autonomy from the parents. Erikson indicates that developing intimacy during this stage transcends the sexual emotions experienced in puberty (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016). It encompasses the overt expression of love, generosity, caring, and commitment. A failed resolution of the crisis of the adolescence stage would precipitate a psychosocial crisis in emerging adulthood. As such, the individual will display social isolation, rather than love and intimacy with others.
After her master’s death, Harriet fled bondage in 1849 aged 29. She made a solo journey via the Underground Railroad to Philadelphia after her two brothers decided to turn back. Thus, a sense of autonomy could be seen in her resolve to travel to freedom. Further, she traveled back to the south in severally to rescue enslaved family members who included her niece (Kessiah), parents, siblings, and other slaves, but not her husband. Thus, a sense of intimacy is seen through her caring and loves for her family. Even after the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law that allowed former slaves in the north to be repatriated to the south, Harriet continued helping slaves escape bondage by re-routing the railroad to Canadian territories.
Although Harriet got married to a former slave, John Tubman, her escape to the north meant that she could not stay with him. This indicates an inability to establish and sustain a romantic relationship due to unresolved identity crisis from the adolescent stage. Her husband would later remarry and stay within Dorchester County. Harriet found comfort in her occupational identity as the slave rescuer. However, her unresolved social identity made it difficult for her to develop intimacy with men. She would later marry Nelson Davis, a man twenty years her junior.
Adulthood (30-64 Years)
In this stage, the primary emotional tussle is between generativity and stagnation. Generativity entails a greater focus on what is best for the children. Therefore, at this stage, the individual acts as a social environment for others. An adult reinforces positive conditions that foster trust, initiative, and industry in the children and youth (Ursache, Blair, Stifter, & Voegtline, 2013). When such efforts fail, the individual regresses to a deep desire for intimacy seen in the previous stage. Erikson calls this phenomenon stagnation. Generativity manifests as care for the future generation through material and emotional support.
Harriet was married twice; her first marriage to John Tubman in 1844 failed due to her inability to develop a sense of intimacy in earlier stages. She later remarried in 1869 and adopted a girl called Gertie. The adoption of baby girl may have added to Harriet’s sense of generativity. As Ursache et al. (2013) state, individuals in the adulthood stage become a social model for the infants or children to emulate by providing supportive environments. Harriet may have felt pressure to adopt and raise a child. During this period, Harriet teamed up with other abolitionists, notably John Brown, to bring down the institution of slavery. This indicates that she developed feelings of stagnation related to her role as an abolitionist.
The manifestations of the feelings of stagnation are also evident in her involvement in the Civil War. Harriet worked as a nurse and a chef for the Union Army that sought to end slavery. Subsequently, she became a scout and an intelligence agent in the army. She was the first female commander to lead a successful operation that freed hundreds of enslaved men in the south. Thus, Harriet’s regression to her earlier role – even after helping several slaves escape slavery as an Underground Railroad conductor – indicates that she harbored feelings of stagnation during this developmental stage.
Late Adulthood (65-Death)
Senior citizens face a developmental crisis of ego integrity versus despair. The late adulthood stage usually comes at retirement and is marked by a retrospective contemplation of one’s achievements. Consequently, an individual develops ‘ego integrity’ if he perceives his/her life as a success or despair incase he/she is dissatisfied with it (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016). The individual develops feelings of contentment if he/she regards his/her life as fruitful and joyful. In contrast, a sense of despair creeps in if the person rues missed opportunities and unaccomplished goals. These feelings often develop when the individual is diagnosed with a terminal illness or suffers debilitating injuries.
Harriet’s late adulthood was characterized by advocacy for women’s suffrage. In 1898, she was involved in the clamor for women’s voting rights by giving speeches in major cities. Her involvement in activism during this stage is an indicator of a sense of despair related to gender inequality. Previously, she championed for abolitionism, but not for gender equality. Thus, the feelings of despair over unaccomplished goals may have forced her to begin agitating for women’s suffrage.
Harriet also underwent brain surgery to treat chronic sleeplessness due to the head injury she suffered at the age of 12. After the surgery, she decided to donate her home to the Methodist Church for use as a senior center for blacks. The center was opened in 1908. Five years later she died of pneumonia, aged 93. The decision to donate her property could have resulted from a desire to do more for the black community.
The theoretical findings of the psychobiographical study of Harriet Tubman’s life lead to the conclusion that Harriet was an extraordinary individual who played a significant role in the abolitionism movement. Her psychosocial development was marked with crises related to feelings of guilt in middle childhood, inferiority in the latency stage, role confusion in puberty, isolation, stagnation, and despair in her later years.
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