And I’m not talking about Harriet the Spy, although, I loved her books as a kid. No, I’m talking about the movie about Harriet Tubman. Go see it now, because although it has been doing well financially since opening November 1, you never know how long these things last. I am the queen of waiting too long and missing the handful of movies I actually want to see during the year. Princess would appreciate it if the movie people could keep movies around until I can get to them, please. Just saying.
It’s the kind of movie that had me Googling it right after the show, “How true is the Harriet Tubman movie?” Most of it — the important parts — are true.
I admit to being a bit confused at first. I kept thinking she was an escaped slave who became a speaker for the abolitionists. But she spent the whole movie bringing slaves, including her family, more than 100 miles to freedom like a badass. Talking? Not so much, although there was one satisfying scene where she disses Frederick Douglass for being too comfortable and forgetting how bad it is to be a slave. Don’t tell Harriet Tubman the situation has become too dangerous to rescue slaves.
So, I’m sorry to say I was being a clueless white person, but I do know that iconic photo of her. In fact, nearly all her biographies have that photo on the cover, especially in the children’s section. I know it, but I’m pretty sure I never read her biography. But I should have. How is possible that I didn’t? I wondered if I know it from my high school job working at the local library. I hope so, because that means it was taken out and I had to reshelve it a lot.
But watching the movie, I realized most of the biographies for kids available during my childhood were mostly likely white-washed. I did learn that many biographies soften her to be more “lady like,” when it seems the more accurate version is that she was highly focused and disregarded the danger to herself, had a pistol and wasn’t afraid to use it, and wore men’s clothes, cuz, you know travelling 100 miles round trip in a long dress is not how this shit gets done.
I was curious, so I borrowed a children’s book on Harriet Tubman by Marie Patterson, published in 2005. It was recommended online (but maybe I should have trusted a real- life librarian instead). At just 20 pages long, not counting an index and a few pages about other abolitionists, this is a super high-level book for younger readers.
The book starts with her wanting all slaves to be free and says she was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Then it talks about her childhood, and where she lived (slaves quarters) and what she wore (burlap). Then it says most white children went to school at 5 or 6, but slave children did not. But the book says “slaves,” not Black people or African Americans. I know the term keeps changing, but the book could have been specific that the children are slaves and not allowed to go to school because they are Black, right? It does say that Harriet was treated harshly, and slaves were beaten and often hired out. But again, there is no context mentioned. How about a sentence saying, slavery was a widespread and terrible practice that, um, you know dehumanized Black people? I mean, as far as you can say anything absolutely these days, that’s one of the few.
Farther along, the book mentions abolitionists, and while it helpfully gives the pronunciation of the word, it doesn’t give the definition. Although it does say the stations on the Underground Railroads were run by people who didn’t “like” slavery.
Um, say what, now? That’s like saying people are against murder because they don’t “like” it. Hey, Marie, how about saying, the people running the stations “found slavery reprehensible (rep-re-HEN-sih-bul)”?
It does then go on to detail her heroic efforts, her skills, and how amazing she was. OK, that’s not so bad. It even mentions how she carried a gun — I’d read that fact was often left out in older biographies. Ah, but then it says she used the gun to convince scared slaves to be free or die. That’s it. No mention of protecting herself and her charges against those pesky white owners and slave catchers. Because, you know those scared slaves are super dangerous and slave catchers just want to talk it out.
And then we get to this little gem: “After years of arguing, the people of the North and the South could not solve their problems. So the southern states seceded from the Union. This led to the United States Civil War.”
Wow. OK. Is it really safe to assume kids know why we fought the Civil War? Cuz this kind of book is not helping. How about we add a few key, missing words, “…could not solve their problems about allowing slavery…”
Then it’s just a downhill slide as the book gives Colonel James Montgomery full credit for leading a raid during the war that freed more than 700 slaves; it says Harriet was his scout. While she did scout, they split up, both leading boats on the mission. Harriet led 150 men on boat to rescue the fleeing slaves.
“Harriet” is not a perfect movie, but it is an improvement. Maybe it can stoke our curiosity. Who are other badass Black men and women in our history we don’t know about? Or think we know, but we don’t? I for one am way impressed by a woman who can walk/run 100 miles, with people in tow, facing death (or worse) at the hands of white every step of the way. Avengers, eat your hearts out.
Great piece, thank you! I loved the film. This was the first Hollywood film ever about this amazing Black true American hero. It only took 150+ years to get that done!
Thanks David! She truly is an American hero!