It’s a violation of my Green Lantern oath as a historian, but perhaps it’s a waste of time in 2017 to talk about the “real” Harriet Tubman versus the Harriet Tubman of our collective imagination.
I loved the first five minutes of last week’s second-season premiere of WGN’s hit slavery-era drama “Underground.” In it, Tubman holds a gun in one hand and an axe in another, telling two white men, slave-catchers, that they had a choice: $10 to let her and Rosalee go or two bullets. It was refreshing to see: a perfect image for the post-“Get Out” film audience still processing the idea of revolutionary, violent Black self-defense.
I saw the premiere on the DVR the morning after I attended this past weekend’s grand opening of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center. It’s in the Eastern Shore of Maryland’s Church Creek, in Dorchester County—the county where Tubman was born, grew up, escaped from, and returned 13 times to rescue 70 family and friends. More than 2,000 visitors attended the park during its opening weekend, including a private showing on Friday for elected officials and Tubman descendants, park officials said.
I saw in the room the national and Maryland park services had set aside for children a small group of tykes of all races who were happily trying on disguises given them to play with, imitating Tubman. I also saw some of them taking pictures with Millicent Sparks, a performer re-enacting Tubman there. Intellectual cynic that I am, I wondered if that children’s room would have still been set aside, if there would still be this national park with its re-enactor, if there would still be two gamillion children’s books on Tubman, if there was a record of the woman called Moses using that shotgun we keep hearing about—the one I saw on “Underground,” the one she carried in real life—against whites.
Anyway, Annette Alston, a Newark, N.J. schoolteacher and community activist, had dragged me to this thing. She is the author of a forthcoming book, “Harriet Tubman For Beginners.” She wanted to meet Kate Clifford Larson, the nation’s foremost Tubman scholar.
Larson did a great presentation to the crowd of 300 of us freezing in an outside tent on Sunday. Her groundbreaking 2004 biography of Tubman, “Bound For The Promised Land” (coming your way soon to HBO with Viola Davis?) and her subsequent website that updates facts about the Underground Railroad conductor, breaks a lot of the myths about her. Such as: Tubman rescued 70 people, not 300 (although she did give instructions to another 70 escapees); She did follow the North Star and used codes, but there was no codes inside slave quilts and no, she didn’t use the song “Follow The Drinking Gourd”; she made only 13 trips back and forth, and those trips were to get her family and friends out of Maryland; no, she did not follow lawn jockeys (they hadn’t even existed yet!); and, finally, no, she did not have a five-figure bounty on her: she, as an escaped anonymous slave, not as a notorious “Moses” fugitive, did have a small $300 reward posted, for her and a few others. Sadly to us now, but clearly not to her at the time, most slave-catchers only knew of Moses as an Old Testament character; her immediate, on-the-go legend was for Black people and abolitionists alone back then.
Now the legend belongs to America, with all that means and carries. The center’s not-yet-completely-finished exhibits—those involved had tried hard to have everything done by Harriet Tubman Day, March 10—had a very Smithsonian-interactive vibe to it: Full-wall pictures and texts (incorporating the new facts), and statues of different sizes. The gift-shop was filled with books and other tourist-trap items. Larson, not publicly recognizing the irony, told the crowd Sunday that the new, hot Tubman item—that new photo—will be auctioned this month.
The center is on the large patch of land that Tubman had memorized, land now littered with her historical markers. You can see the land where her slavemasters had their house (no “Gone With The Wind” mansions in Maryland, corrects Larson) and where she played as a child. The “Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway Driving Tour Guide” (complete with an as-you-drive audio app), will even encourage you to go inside the renovated general store where, as a young woman, she had the accident that gave her that severe head injury (and, as a result, powerful religious visions).
Alston enjoyed the spots on the tour, marveling at the marshland and trees that existed then and now. But she scoffed at the “Underground” portrayal of Moses. Was that Harriet Tubman in Ohio? There is no proof that I know of of her organizing in Ohio! “They just put her in it to put her in it.”
Turning into my superhero identity, Captain Obvious, I countered: “Well, it’s clear she’s in it to radicalize Rosalee,” the escaped slave female lead, set dramatically afire by Jurnee Smollett-Bell. “This is, after all, a fictionalized account of slavery.”
Alston sniffed, not impressed.
In the end, the “real” Harriet Tubman exists in our DNA. We can choose to dress like her, act her out, visit her many parks and, unless President Trump stops it, will soon spend her. But she is not a children’s character to us, no matter how she is presented to America by America. Our minds were made up long ago as to what she is—a key part of the permanent subconscious of African resistance.