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Analysis: 'Jimmy Akin's Mysterious World' tackles Harriet Tubman

A Catholic podcast on the supernatural recently covered Harriet Tubman and the legacy of state-sanctioned slavery. Briana Jansky dives in.

(StarQuest Media)

Jimmy Akin is the senior apologist at Catholic Answers and also runs the podcast “Jimmy Akin’s Mysterious World,” in which he covers interesting and often paranormal topics like psychic phenomena, aliens, and the paranormal.

I frequently listen to the show and read his material, as I find that he is one of the more intellectually balanced Catholics with a prominent platform. As a matter of fact, Akin’s writings on justification and the end times aided in my conversion to Catholicism from Evangelical Protestantism.

Recently, and perhaps a bit surprisingly, Akin’s podcast covered a topic directly related to the Black community: none other than Harriet Tubman. He opened the episode poignantly:

“My goal, as always, is to get to the truth. Understanding the truth is the best way to be liberated from the evils of the past. We have it on the words of no less a person than Jesus Christ himself that if you know the truth, the truth will set you free. And America most definitely needs to be freed from the evil legacies of slavery and racism so that we can all embrace each other in mutual love as children of God.”

The episode tracks Tubman’s life from her adolescence until her death around the age of 91. Akin was able to provide insight into some lesser-known aspects of her life, including her spiritual gifts and the paranormal activity that she experienced in her life. Much of the information that Akin covered was new to me, like the fact that she was hit in the head by a two-pound iron weight as a child, causing her to have sleeping spells throughout her life. He explored the possibility of her having temporal lobe epilepsy as a result, and explored the interesting phenomena associated with it.

Apparently, Tubman noted during her life that she had inherited a spiritual gift from her father, by which they could predict the future. Her father was said to have predicted the Mexican-American War, and Tubman herself predicted many events, including a meeting with the famed abolitionist John Brown, as well as his arrest and death.

Akin noted that her spiritual gifts are often credited for the success of her missions with the Underground Railroad. She was, after all, able to free over 300 slaves without ever being caught. Moreover, in Black culture it is thought to be common for spiritual gifts to be passed down from ancestors or other family members across generations.

Interestingly, there are also various paranormal incidents associated with the Underground Railroad—including Tubman’s experience with what many refer to as “bilocation”. She had what she described as dreams wherein she left her body and went to different locations.

As Akin explores this topic, he references a number of Catholic saints who had similar experiences, such as Padre Pio and Martin De Porres. (For further reading on similar topics, pick up Joyce Noll’s “Company Of Prophets: African American Psychics, Healers, and Visionaries”.)

Throughout Akin’s episode on Tubman, one thing I noticed was that he presented facts about slavery and race-related issues without veering into partisan politics. This was refreshing to see, because in a lot of conversations from similar Catholic platforms, politics and arguments about who’s pandering to the left or the right dominate the conversation instead of the fact-based, morally objective crux of the issue. Akin demonstrated how to open the door for genuine conversations to happen and healing to take place—starting from within the Church.

For example, during the Tubman episode, he played a snippet from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Akin points out that while a lot of the things King mentioned have been fulfilled, we still have the need for much more progress. At another point, Akin correctly points out that slavery is still allowed in the US by means of the 13th Amendment, as a punishment for crimes.

African Americans are policed, arrested, convicted, and exonerated for crimes at a higher rate than any other ethnic group in the US. The National Registry of Exonerations found that they are disproportionately exonerated in almost every category of crime, making up more than half the sum total of exonerations since 1989. Although African Americans are a small percentage of the US population, they make up almost double the death penalty exonerations of their White counterparts and nearly 100 times more than other races. It is chilling to consider how many of those currently in the US prison system might be innocent without being exonerated.

Akin pointed out in the episode that an early draft of the Declaration of Independence included a condemnation of British slavery, which was later removed. He also noted that many of the American revolutionaries were inspired by Enlightenment-era thinking on freedom and independence, and that their worldview contradicted what they were actually living by owning slaves—including Thomas Jefferson, who authored the would-be slavery passage.

Interestingly, Akin also highlighted that slaves were owned by both White and Black families. While that’s true, I would have liked him to flesh out the numbers a bit more. That African Americans owned slaves is often a “gotcha” talking point brought up by conservatives, turning meaningful discussions into the blame game. According to the records, around 20-25% of White households owned Black slaves in states where it was legal, while less than a half of one percent of free Blacks did. Moreover, due to state laws, many of the slaves considered to be owned by Black people were in fact their wives and children.

In all, I commend Akin for his work. Being able to have grounded conversations about the intersection of racism, slavery, and the faith is necessary to combat opposition to the full corpus of Catholic teachings, social and otherwise. He did a stand-up job—and has mentioned that he will cover the Underground Railroad again in the future.

My hope is that many other Catholics will follow his lead on remaining open to (and objective about) difficult topics, and his example of constantly searching for the true truth.

Briana Jansky is a freelance writer, author, blogger, and host of the Geeks For Jesus podcast.

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