“I have heard their groans and sighs, and seen their tears, and I would give every drop of blood in my veins to free them.”
As the credits rolled at the end of Kasi Lemmons’s Harriet, I found my eyes welling up, moved by the depiction of this powerful woman, whose determination and heroic action had helped expose slavery for the pernicious evil that it is and rescue hundreds of black women, men and children from the slave-owning South.
Cynthia Erivo’s portrayal of Tubman is masterful, giving you a ready sense of the doughty, fearless character of the woman who not only escaped herself from the Maryland farm where she was enslaved, but then returned again and again, as a conductor on the Underground Railway, to free others. “Slavery,” Tubman said, “is the next thing to hell,” but vowed that “I have heard their groans and sighs, and seen their tears, and I would give every drop of blood in my veins to free them.”
In a recent interview Lemmons made no apology for highlighting Harriet Tubman’s faith and her sense of God’s guidance in the movie. She spoke of “consulting with God,” during her perilous expeditions south and trusted that God would keep her safe. Fellow abolitionist Thomas Garrett said of her, “I never met any person of any color who had more confidence in the voice of God.”
Black theologian James Cone noted that black slaves were not passive – they resisted the bondage they suffered in a whole range of ways. One of these was the sort of religion they developed. The Christianity embraced by many blacks in slavery was not just that of their masters. The idea of Christianity that black slaves embraced was one where freedom and liberation was vigorously affirmed and one where black humanity was affirmed, despite everything that slavery and white people said.
So black people shouted and prayed, preached and sang about a God who was not confined to the powerful and the free. A God who was for them and loved them and who was their source of strength and dignity in the midst of the trials and hardships of life. A God to whom they looked for deliverance, not just when this life was over, but right now, from the torment of slavery.
The movie also features Tubman using Spirituals to communicate with other slaves in her rescue missions. Coded songs contained words giving directions on how to escape also known as signal songs or where to meet known as map songs. She used “Wade in the Water” to tell slaves to get into the water to avoid being seen and make it through. This is an example of a map song, where directions are coded into the lyrics. “Steal away” meant to sneak into the woods for a secret slave meeting and “Swing low, Sweet Chariot” was used by slaves looking over the Ohio river – “I looked over Jordan and what did I see?” where the chariot was the means of transport northward. I’d read about this before, but as I watched the movie, I began to see how it really could work.
The movie rips along at a thrilling pace, with the tension at times almost unbearable. It’s a great story, it makes for great cinema, with a focus on courage and liberation rather than the horror of slavery (not that this this atrocity and blight on American history is glossed over). It really is a travesty that this is the first significant movie to be made about Harriet Tubman. But then, she has rarely been accorded the recognition she is due. During the Civil War, Tubman served as a nurse, laundress, and spy with Union forces along the coast of South Carolina and was one of the few American women to lead an armed assault – yet despite numerous honours, she spent her last years in poverty.
Most of all, Harriet is a tribute to a remarkable woman, a true American hero. When asked by a BBC interviewer what had happened to the Harriet Tubman $20 bill, Lemmons said simply, “Trump happened,” but went on to express confidence that Harriet would be celebrated in this way in due course. Let’s hope Harriet helps keep the pressure on the US Treasury.