I did not intend on writing about this today but then…
I saw the Harriet movie.
Yep. I went to see it.
I know many are protesting the film, but I don’t jump on bandwagons. I wanted to see it for myself to develop my own opinion. I also knew I wanted to write about it.
There are some truths, such as her being referred to as Moses. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of inaccuracies. The movie is Hollywoodish and leaves a lot out. In an interview, I heard the script was written twenty years ago, so that may have something to do with it. In any case, if you are planning to see it, here are some things you may want to know.
- Harriet Tubman never had a friend named Marie Buchanon.
- There was never a Black Bounty Hunter named Bigger Long after Harriet Tubman. The same is true of the Brodesses son. They did have a son (Jonathan) but little is known about him. His role in the movie is made up.
While “Bigger Long” is a fictional character, it shouldn’t be overlooked that Black trackers existed and were active during slavery. I think it is vital that as we are striving for historical accuracy, we are not so “Pro-Black” that we forget that a lot of our own people sold us out, and continue to sell us out. While Bigger Long may not have been a real person in Harriet’s life, there were black slave catchers. The movie, it seemed to me, had a lot of ‘women vs. men’ undertones. Not only was Bigger Long the sole antagonist against Harriet (even more so than the Brodesses, son), he was also the one responsible for the death of one of the Black women in the most diabolical, sinister, and brutal way.
The William Still character is based on a real historical figure. Still was a black abolitionist based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, businessman, writer, and conductor on the Underground Railroad. In the movie, he was over-the-top with his reactions to Harriet’s return from the missions. Holding his hand to his chest, spinning Harriet around, and at one point, he even falls out of a chair. Some people laughed, but I didn’t find it funny. To me, it made him look like a bufoon.
The Black men in this movie seemed weak to me. I worry this was intentional. Hollywood has a habit of showing black men as less capable when contrasted against the black woman’s strength. Rarely is there a balance to showing black couples as equally competent. The imaginative Marie shows Harriet how to shoot a gun and helps her in her cause. Harriet was a warrior but I am certain the surrounding men weren’t that simple-minded and faithless.
- Tubman didn’t change her name when she reached freedom. She changed it before then, around the time of her marriage, possibly to honor her mother.
- Three of Tubman’s sisters were sold, not just one.
- Two of Tubman’s brothers, Ben and Harry, accompanied her (1) they went with her initially, at the onset of her escape not later as depicted in the film (2) after a notice was published in the Cambridge Democrat offering a reward for her return, Harry and Ben had second thoughts and returned to the plantation so she made the voyage alone.
- Tubman had spells, dream-states, and visions (I believe she was deeply spiritual, her spells were my inspiration for Nora’s spells in Renaissance), but she also endured seizures, severe headaches, and narcoleptic episodes for the rest of her life from the hit to the head.
This next point wasn’t in the movie but since we are talking about Harriet Tubman I think it’s important to mention.
The Fake Quote:
It’s a good quote and a powerful one. I wish I could say it belonged to Harriet but with every source I checked there’s no documented, historical proof that Harriet Tubman ever said:
“I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”
- The confusion began when feminist writer Robin Morgan updated her 1970 essay “Goodbye to All That” during the 2008 US Democratic Party’s primary presidential candidate race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Morgan supported Clinton, and in the essay challenged other women who did not. She wrote: “Let a statement by the magnificent Harriet Tubman stand as reply. When asked how she managed to save hundreds of enslaved African Americans via the Underground Railroad during the Civil War, she replied bitterly, ‘I could have saved thousands – if only I’d been able to convince them they were slaves.’” The implication was that women who didn’t support Clinton were similarly enslaved, and didn’t know it.
- One expert was Milton Sernett, professor emeritus of history and African American studies at Maxwell School. “My impression is that this is a late 20th century quote from a fictionalised account of Tubman’s life,” Sernett told history blogger Ralph Luker, who first queried the quote.
- More than this, at meetings in 1858 and 1859 Tubman repeatedly said she had personally rescued 50 to 60 people from slavery. So she would never have said she “freed a thousand slaves”.
A quote that has historical proof, and that has been proven to come from her that you can use:
“I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say — I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
– Harriet Tubman at a suffrage convention, NY, 1896.
“During public and private meetings between 1858 and 1859, Tubman repeatedly told people that she had rescued 50 to 60 people in 8 or 9 trips (this was before her very last mission, in December 1860, when she brought away seven people.) Sarah Bradford exaggerated the numbers in her 1868 biography. Bradford never said that Tubman gave her those numbers; instead, Bradford estimated that it was the number. Other friends who were close to Tubman contradicted those numbers. Tubman also instructed another 70 or so freedom seekers who found their way to freedom on their own”
Is it possible Tubman freed far more than what is documented even if only through instruction? Absolutely, but we have no proof she said she freed a thousand and could have freed a thousand more.
“My impression is that this is a late 20th-century quote from a fictionalized account of Tubman’s life. “Whoever wishes to use the dubious quote as a political zinger ought to cite a reliable source.” – Milton Sernett, Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History
A few more things not addressed in the movie:
- Tubman’s time as a Union spy (touched on a little at the end of the film), nurse, and cook.
- Her 1869 marriage to Nelson Davis—a soldier, some 20 years her junior—and the couple’s 1874 adoption of a baby girl named Gertie
- Her work as a suffragist,
- Neurosurgery undertaken to address her decades-old brain injury.
- Her financial hardship later in life.
- The opening of the Harriet Tubman Home for the Elderly in 1908.
Now, the movie wasn’t a total fail for me. There are some things I liked that are worth mentioning.
I loved the show of Harriet’s spirituality, which I do not equate to anything Christian. Her reliance on her faith, praying, and praising during difficult times. I loved the show of her hands raised and open, historically how we (Israelites/Blacks/AFAM) prayed. Harriet’s spiritual intuition was a beautiful show of faith and her belief that the Almighty was central in guiding her in her journey.
Should you see the film? That is up to you. I will caution that if you plan to bring your children, print this post out (or another fact sheet you’ve vetted), and use it as a reference so they can properly discern the facts in the movie from the fiction.
Check out more Black History Fun Facts here.