Identity & Purpose: Lessons from Queen Nanny, Harriet Tubman & Sojourner Truth

Lately, I have been wrestling with Identity and Purpose. On one hand, there’s who I am and what I am purposed to do in the world’s eyes. On the other hand, there’s my God-given identity and my God-given purpose.

In Judges 6, the nation of Israel had once again fallen back into their familiar patterns of rejecting God’s purpose for them and turning to idols. As such, they were given over to the Midianites for 7 years. Now, set the scene, a slight man, son of Joash the Abiezrite, (of one of the least clan of the tribe Manassah) is threshing wheat in  winepress in order to avoid being seen by the Midianites.

 12 And the Angel of the LORD appeared to him, and said to him, “The LORD is with you, you mighty man of valor!
13 Gideon said to Him, “O my lord, if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all His miracles which our fathers told us about, saying, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the LORD has forsaken us and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites.”
14 Then the LORD turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours, and you shall save Israel from the hand of the Midianites. Have I not sent you?” 
15 So he said to Him, “O my Lord, how can I save Israel? Indeed my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.”
16 And the LORD said to him, “Surely I will be with you, and you shall defeat the Midianites as one man.”
17 Then he said to Him, “If now I have found favor in Your sight, then show me a sign that it is You who talk with me. 18 Do not depart from here, I pray, until I come to You and bring out my offering and set it before You.”
And He said, “I will wait until you come back.”

“The Lord is with you, mighty man of valor.” Gideon interjects, “but where has God been all these years? Why are my people in this predicament?” The response he receives is this: “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?

Gideon had questioned the very nature of the Creator who had named him and purposed him for this time. His fear, based in what he could see with is eyes, caused him to focus on the here-and-now when he was being called by a God who is not constrained temporally. 2 Peter 3:8 illustrates this well:

But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.

“But how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manassah…” Gideon said. But what he did not grasp is that because the Lord is with him, he would be empowered to carry out his purpose in spite of his shortcomings. Yes, he was a man of low social stature, and yes, he was a member of an oppressed people, but did that mean that he could never be called and purposed for great acts of liberation?

I recall women like Queen Nanny, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth. All were subject to slavery and oppression as African-descended women in the “New World.” All were seen as less-than, and treated as chattel. But all of these mighty women of valor answered the call of freedom. In 18th century Jamaica, Queen Nanny of the Maroons, was instrumental in the formation of Maroon communities, comprised of enslaved Africans who ran away. Born into freedom into the Ashanti tribe of Ghana in 1686, Queen Nanny knew what freedom felt, looked, and tasted like. In spite of slavers’ efforts to beat out the memory of freedom, autonomy and self-sufficiency, she held onto that and rebuilt it.

In a different context, Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Ross), an enslaved African woman with a brain injury from childhood abuse at the hand of her “master,” should not have been a freedom fighter leading enslaved Africans to freedom. Even in today’s context, her recurring seizures and narcolepsy should have been an impediment to her life’s work, but records indicate that she used peoples’ fear and ignorance of her condition to her advantage. In their fear and pride, many of those who would oppose her wrote her off as “crazy” and “harmless.” After all, who, in their ableist hubris, would be threatened by a narcoleptic African woman? Harriet Tubman, as part of a network of abolitionist activists, defied the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and freed thousands. Faced with hostility from Irish immigrants, who’d been pitted against free Africans for labor, Harriet Tubman worked to free her family and countless others from the “peculiar institution.”

“I freed thousands of slaves; I could have freed more if they knew they were slaves.” ~ Harriet Tubman

Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree) (1797-1883), born into slavery in New York, escaped to freedom with her infant daughter in 1826. Shortly afterward, she became the first African-descended woman to successfully sue a white man for parental custody of her son. Daughter of an enslaved Ghanaian man who knew freedom, she sought it for herself and others. By all accounts, she should not have been able to accomplish what she did: procuring her childrens’ freedom, becoming a vocal anti-slavery activist, and later pleading for land grants from the US governmment on behalf of formerly-enslaved Africans. At age 46, in 1843, she changed her name to “Sojourner Truth” and told her friends “The Spirit calls me, and I must go.” Perhaps she had an encounter with God that convinced her of her identity and purpose that transcended her history as a formerly-enslaved African woman in the settler colony that was known as the United States of America. Perhaps it  was this that empowered her to speak the truth of slavery’s brutal immorality and injustice before hostile crowds.

“The Spirit calls me, and I must go.” ~ Sojourner Truth

What Queen Nanny, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth have in common is that all of them, at one point, named themselves. All of them saw an identity that was separate from what society told them they were. They knew that they were more than their station as enslaved African women. They embarked on their life’s work with this new-found identity, empowered and enabled fulfill their purpose.

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