July 2024

Night Flyer

By Henry Louis Gates Jr. & Tiya Miles
Review by
With the exquisite Night Flyer, Tiya Miles looks at Harriet Tubman from an entirely new perspective: her spirituality.
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National Book Award-winning author Tiya Miles has tackled a variety of tough, intriguing subjects in books like Wild Girls and All That She Carried. She felt stymied, however, as she approached the life of the legendary Harriett Tubman. As one friend told her, “No one could catch her then. It’s going to be hard to catch her now.” 

And yet that is exactly what Miles so beautifully achieves in Night Flyer: Harriet Tubman and the Faith Dreams of a Free People. One of the biggest hurdles Miles faced was Tubman’s illiteracy, which meant her life experiences were all documented by others—“typically white, middle-class, antislavery women who recorded her speech and told her story.” Despite the roadblock of such “swamped sources,” often “submerged in the perspectives and biases of others,” Miles applauds a number of existing traditional biographies. As she explains, her goal was not to replicate these, but rather to explore Tubman’s eco-spiritual worldview. 

In her trademark deeply researched, thoughtful and exquisite prose, Miles successfully avoids popular depictions of Tubman as a superwoman “prepackaged in a box of stock stories and folksy sayings” among other “abolitionist avengers.” Instead, she places her firmly within the realm of Black female faith culture, noting that she was “one of a kind—singularly special and part of a cultural collective.” To illuminate Tubman’s spiritual purview, Miles delves into several memoirs written or dictated by Black women evangelists of Tubman’s time, writing that their relationships with the divine mandated “challenging entrenched social systems of racial and gender subjugation at the risk of [their] own safety, health, and social acceptance”

Calling her “arguably the most famous Black woman ecologist in U.S. history,” Miles also brings to life the haunting sights, sounds and dark, bewildering moments that Tubman experienced as she led herself and others to safety through the night wilderness. Tubman studied the plants, animals and stars as a matter of necessity for survival, believing that these god-given guides were proof of the need for spiritual and political liberation. 

Often, when Tubman told her story to biographers, she touched the writer, as if “by laying her hand on this person, her feelings may be transmitted.” With Night Flyer, Tiya Miles seems to transmit the weight of her subject’s hand and heart.

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Night Flyer

Night Flyer

By Henry Louis Gates Jr. & Tiya Miles
Penguin Press
ISBN 9780593491164

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