Go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt land
Tell old Pharaoh to
Let my people go!
This was one of the first Negro spirituals I heard as a child when learning about the fearlessness and dignified poise of Harriet Tubman. My mother proudly emphasized that Tubman used spirituals as code songs during her rescue missions, which historical records calculate at around 13 trips to free at least 70 slaves from the eastern shore of Maryland.
I remember being amazed that Tubman never lost a soul and that she had to be dauntless in telling anyone who feared to turn back that she would shoot them. For Tubman, it was a "choose ye this day" declaration when making the daring decision to flee slavery under her leadership. And there were only two choices: freedom or death.
The new biopic "Harriet" keenly portrays the perils that Tubman faced each time she traveled back to Maryland's Dorchester County, leading friends and family to their liberation that stretched from Pennsylvania all the way to Canada.
Cynthia Erivo, a rising British star who was featured in "Widows" last year with Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis, gives an extraordinary performance of Tubman as a young woman. Most of the photos of Tubman that I have seen show her later in life, and there are some noticeable features that particularly stand out. She never smiles. Her hair is always pinned back and never caresses her face. There is a distinct solemnness in her eyes, which I have always attributed to the horrors she endured as a field hand in slavery.
Erivo's impassioned portrayal allows us to imagine a young Harriet Tubman who had hopes of starting a family with her free husband, John. Those hopes were bitterly destroyed when her master Edward Brodess died and left his family and plantation in heavy debt. Fearing being put on the auction block and sold out of state, the terrible fate that befell her sisters, Tubman made the heart-rending decision to leave John and flee to freedom in Philadelphia. Her freedom, however, wasn't fulfilling without her family, so her determination to bring her loved ones out of bondage birthed "Black Moses," the famous moniker she was given as a conductor of the Underground Railroad.
The bond of family in slavery and Tubman's fiery faith in God are two of the most compelling themes in "Harriet." Watching Tubman's mother's devastating anguish when her sisters are sold reminded me of the scene in "Roots" where Kizzy, the daughter of Kunta Kinte, is sold away from her parents. The mental angst of forced family separation was just as painful, if not more so, than the brutal lashes that ripped the flesh from slaves tied to whipping posts. However, unlike "Roots," "Harriet" does not have any cruel whipping scenes, although it does show the escalated violence in Pennsylvania after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.
Tubman's love for her family was poured out in her prayers to God, and the visualization of her putting faith into action in the midst of what seemed like impossible odds greatly resonated with me. She resisted the assertion by William Still, an African American Pennsylvania abolitionist, that she "got lucky." Tubman knew that traveling over 100 miles on foot and dodging slave catchers, blood hounds and copperhead snakes did not amount to luck.
This depiction of Tubman's faith is also significant in that it shows how she knew that the God of the Bible did not condone chattel slavery. One of the main arguments against blacks who are Christians that I often heard while a graduate student was that we were deceived into following the "white man's religion" as a result of slavery. "Harriet" triumphantly shows that white slave owners who professed their belief in God were completely ignorant of His grace and love — and most importantly, His delivering power.
Those who see "Harriet" will gain a greater appreciation for her monumental and miraculous impact on American history. The film fittingly ends with Tubman's last words, the latter part of John 14:2: "I go to prepare a place for you." Thank God that Tubman knew her place on Earth was not to be enslaved.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University's Lima campus. Email her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @JjSmojc. To find out more about Jessica Johnson and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: orythys at Pixabay