Harriet Tubman’s Toes

So when I was a kid, a time so long ago it can be measured in multiple decades, I read a book about Harriet Tubman. The only part of the book that has stuck with me all these years is a passage about how because Harriet Tubman never wore shoes, her toes were long and straight. Immediately, Harriet Tubman became my foot role model.  I eschewed shoes (when socially acceptable) in order to cultivate the long toes of a Harriet Tubman.  Nowadays I will sometimes look at my grown-up toes, which have gotten a bit curly and bumpy with age, and feel I have let her memory down.

Harriet Tubman photo by H. B. Lindsley via the Library of Congress

I am sure the author did not intend the sort of fixation I developed, so why was this detail included? Was it an attempt to reclaim the hideous and oppressive poverty she grew up in? To say “it was awful to be a slave but at least she had nice feet”? And really, can this even be a historical fact? Is there a journal or oral history which recounts the beautiful toes of the woman who led them north?

You know what’s really amazing about being alive right now? Finally seeking to assuage my curiosity, tonight I Googled “Harriet Tubman Straight Toes.” I was wondering if there really was some sort of significance to this fact, the sort of significance that could be found by idle internet browsing. I did not find any unifying theory. However, my first listed result was in fact the Google preview  of the very passage in the very book I read.  It says:

She was accustomed to the scratchy feel of the tow-linen shirt she wore.  Because she went barefooted, the soles of her feet were calloused, but the toes were straight, never having known the pinch of new shoes or any kind of foot covering.

So I suppose it was really just the effort to use sense details to make Tubman’s experience more accessible for children.  To set the stage for a woman who did truly extraordinarily good things in spite of an extraordinarily deprived and abusive childhood.

This book was  written in 1955!  The copyright was renewed in 1983, just in time for me to enjoy, and the edition digitized on Google Books was printed in 1996.  Generations of children have had the opportunity to learn about the toes of Harriet Tubman.  And now we can reconnect with this resource, via our friends at Google.

What a wonderful world.

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