BALTIMORE — In the trailer for the upcoming Harriet Tubman biopic “Harriet,” the abolitionist, played by actress Cynthia Erivo, is seen carrying and firing a firearm in multiple scenes.
Here, she’s shooting a handgun as she flees on the back of a horse. There, she’s pointing it at a threat as she shelters a girl in her arms. Over there, she’s aiming a long gun and leading a pack of Union soldiers.
An armed Tubman is historically accurate: The native of Maryland’s Dorchester County used guns for self-defense. She kept a revolver on her as she led hundreds of slaves to freedom in the Underground Railroad in the early- to mid-1800s.
But it’s not a typical depiction of Tubman, according to experts and a survey of images online. That’s because of racial and gender stereotypes that largely began to soften her image after the 1940s, according to experts. But, historians and artists say, it’s time for more realistic portrayals of the woman revered as a conductor on the metaphorical Underground Railroad.
“History has a way of rewriting the narrative and kind of using history as a political smokescreen so that we kind of take the teeth away from the real bite of what happened,” Morgan State University archivist Ida Jones said.
Jones expressed concern about history’s penchant for oversimplifying the lives of historical figures when considering them in the context of a character.
A survey of the dozens of Harriet Tubman books on Amazon shows covers portraying Tubman in a variety of manners, but few of her armed.
By comparison, an Amazon survey of books on another notable 19th-century American — frontiersman Daniel Boone — frequently show him toting his Kentucky long rifle.
The upcoming Focus Features film “Harriet” is not the first time the iconic Marylander has been depicted armed in the media. Tubman is brandishing a sharpshooter’s rifle as she leads other escaped slaves through the forest on the front cover of the second edition of a 1960s comic book called Golden Legacy, which featured notable figures in African American history.
“Guns were important to black freedom efforts,” said Johns Hopkins University associate history professor Nathan Connolly. “This acknowledgement is not new to the 21st century.”
Tubman wasn’t permitted to learn how to read or write but historian and Harriet Tubman scholar Kate Larson said that she learned about the abolitionist’s militant personality from what those who met her.
“She was so incredibly brave and courageous and really smart,” Larson said. “It challenged white people’s view of black people at the time.”
“In their letters you can see them struggling with how to describe Tubman.”
The movie “Harriet” depicts her in a similar context, leading enslaved people through the woods, gun in hand. The film is set to be released in theaters Nov. 1.
The film’s producer Debra Chase was hesitant when the idea of the film was initially presented to her. She didn’t want to recreate the same movie about Tubman that she had seen growing up. She was pleasantly surprised when she read the script and discovered that Tubman was assuming the role of an action hero, something she had never previously seen.
“You have never seen Harriet like this before,” Chase said.
Larson found that up until the 1940s, most of what was published about Tubman accurately depicted her with guns and a militant personality.
She cited journalist and author Earl Conrad’s book “Harriet Tubman: Negro Soldier and Abolitionist.” The book was rejected by over 30 publishers. Conrad wrote in his book “Jim Crow America,” that this was largely due to the assumption that a book about a black woman would not interest the general public. During the Jim Crow era, there were a series of children’s books and novels that significantly softened her image.
In a 20-minute film released in 2016 titled “Carry Me Home,” she’s a guide who uses the Underground Railroad to help a family escape slavery. Tubman’s character is older and serves as a grandmother figure. She is not depicted with a firearm at any point.
Jones and Connolly agreed that it was important to not separate Tubman from the circumstances that led her to activism, which began on a plantation on the Eastern Shore in Dorchester County. The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitors Center opened in the county in 2017.
“We have to acknowledge the origins of her agency was not because she was simply driven to be an agent. She was escaping a legal system that had reduced her to human property,” Jones said. “Once we divorce her from that, that becomes a problem.”
Maryland Public Television recently announced that it will produce one-hour original documentaries about Tubman and Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist who escaped from slavery in Maryland, in partnership with filmmaker Stanley Nelson and Firelight Films to be released in 2022.
“I think Harriet Tubman has been treated like a one-dimensional figure and I think that happens with a lot of historical figures because we become fixated on what they do in life,” MPT managing director Mike English said. “There’s a lot more going on inside these people than just what we’ve seen them do.”
Executive Director of Preservation Maryland Nicholas Redding said he is excited for the films.
“Sometimes it takes Hollywood to get people energized about history,” he said.
According to Redding, visits to preservation sites in the state have exploded, with thousands of people flocking to the Eastern Shore to check out the seemingly unchanged historical landmarks where Tubman once walked.
Jones emphasized that for African Americans, however, Tubman was always idolized as a prominent figure.
“Now that the world is embracing her, she’s now being discovered by people that are not African American, but African American people in general have always held her in great esteem,” she said.
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