Workers Vanguard No. 1169

7 February 2020


Black History and the Class Struggle

Harriet: Hollywood’s Distortion of a Black Freedom Fighter

By Salah Shami

Harriet Tubman—fugitive slave, conductor on the Underground Railroad, and spy and military strategist for the Union Army during the Civil War—has had a checkered history at the hands of historians and biographers. A cottage industry of children’s books shrouded her in myth. Figures about the number of slaves she rescued and the amount of bounty on her head were inflated. One of her earliest biographies is filled with such inaccuracies (and is further stamped by racist paternalism). The makers of the 2019 movie Harriet, which garnered a best actress Oscar nomination for Cynthia Erivo, have added their own myth to the mix.

On the one hand, this Hollywood movie honors Tubman, with Erivo’s performance capturing the brave and fearless woman that she was. On the other hand, the fictional liberties taken by director Kasi Lemmons unfortunately undermined this portrayal. Lemmons turned Tubman into a kind of superwoman in a Hollywood action thriller. In the movie, Tubman, cornered by slave catchers, flings herself from a high bridge into a raging river. She is later seen confronting her former slave master and humiliating him.

Tubman’s real life was full of more action and drama than depicted in Harriet. One of her most courageous acts was the rescue of fugitive slave Charles Nalle, in Troy, New York, in 1860. Twice in the same day, Tubman led a crowd that freed Nalle from the clutches of the authorities about to send him back to bondage. In the course of the rescue, she was fired upon, beaten and bloodied, while herself choking a policeman and carrying Nalle over her shoulder along the way.

More significant than such omissions is the movie’s treatment of other heroes of the fight to smash the slavocracy. As in all superhero blockbusters, the role of everybody else is diminished. Among these is the outstanding abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass. In one repulsive fabricated scene, Douglass, who himself escaped from bondage in 1838, is given a cameo of a few seconds in which he is humiliated, his militancy spat on and his commitment to freeing slaves questioned by Tubman.

Glaringly disappeared from the movie is John Brown, the heroic martyr of the October 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Brown sought to procure arms with which to free slaves in the vicinity and establish a liberated area in the mountains. The failed raid, for which he was executed two months later, was the real opening shot of the Civil War. In the movie, a figure who resembles Brown is seen standing passively on the Philadelphia docks, watching as fugitive slaves are boarding a ship to Canada. Tubman was key to recruiting followers for John Brown among black people who had settled in Canada. Showing deep appreciation of her leadership skills, Brown called her the “General.” Tubman fully embraced Brown’s insurrectionary plans, but couldn’t join the raid because she fell ill.

Tubman, Brown and Douglass stood on the revolutionary insurrectionist wing of the abolitionist movement, rejecting the non-violent philosophy of “moral suasion” espoused by William Lloyd Garrison. Tubman knew that freedom for the slave would come about only through blood and iron. As a conductor in the Underground Railroad, returning to slave territory some 13 times, she heroically rescued dozens of slaves from bondage during the bleak decade of the 1850s. As she once put it, “I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”

Committed to the destruction of slavery, Tubman served in the Union Army, understanding early on that the war to “save the Union” must be a war to free the slaves. Like Douglass, she forcefully called for the recruitment and arming of black soldiers to fight in the Union Army, telling her abolitionist friend Lydia Maria Child that “if Lincoln would save lives and money—and the country—he must use the mighty black arm of the Negro on the battlefields” (as rendered by Earl Conrad, Harriet Tubman: Negro Soldier and Abolitionist [1942]). As an advocate for women’s rights, Tubman was an active participant in the women’s suffrage movement.

Harriet Tubman was born a slave sometime in the early 1820s. From an early age, her slave masters routinely whipped her. As a young teen, she was nearly killed when struck in the head by an iron weight thrown by an overseer. As a result of the blow, she suffered headaches, seizures, hallucinations and spells of unconsciousness for the rest of her life. Fearing that she was about to be sold to a master in the even more brutal Deep South, against all odds, Tubman escaped bondage and reached the North in 1849.

Abolitionist Movement and Underground Railroad

The abolitionist movement was part of a broader bourgeois radicalism, a product of the 18th century Enlightenment, Protestant religious ideals and the American Revolution. Although slavery was their primary concern, these radical bourgeois egalitarians also fought for many other pressing social and political issues of the time, such as free education and religious tolerance. The most deeply committed and politically astute of these revolutionary democrats, like Frederick Douglass, understood that the fight against slavery must be generalized into a struggle against all oppression.

The early women’s suffrage movement originated in the abolitionist movement, including when women fought to assert their role as leading anti-slavery activists. Women’s rights leaders, such as the Grimké sisters Angelina and Sarah, were staunch fighters for black freedom. As Angelina put it, “I want to be identified with the Negro; until he gets his rights, we shall never have ours.” (For more, see “The Grimké Sisters: Pioneers for Abolition and Women’s Rights,” Women and Revolution No. 29, Spring 1985.)

Few features of American history have so many legends and myths attached to them as the Underground Railroad. It has been instilled in the public memory through the folklore of mysterious coded quilts and secret tunnels. Fugitive slaves are cast as passive players saved by white abolitionists; their agency in their own emancipation disappeared. In truth, the Underground Railroad’s operations were secret only to its pro-slavery enemies. It operated openly and brazenly. A major focus of the abolitionist movement, the Underground Railroad was a loose network of thousands of men and women, black and white, who courageously trespassed the dangerous boundaries of race and actively subverted federal laws. Black people were instrumental in its development and operation.

Most escapes, including Tubman’s, could not have succeeded without the support of black communities, free and enslaved, South and North. As the Southern slaveholders had allies in many Northern cities, the threat of recapture and transport back South was constant. When fugitive slaves reached a Northern city, they found their first support from black “Underground agents” of the vigilance committees, like William Still in Philadelphia, David Ruggles in New York, Lewis Hayden in Boston, Jermaine Loguen in Syracuse and many others. Black sailors and stevedores assisted slaves, hiding them on ships sailing from Southern ports.

Free blacks were the main activists in the vigilance committees, which were initiated in New York and later sprang up in many other cities. The leaderships of the committees were generally interracial, but were sustained to a considerable extent, and in some places entirely, by black people. But these deeper truths of the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad have generally been suppressed. In a society committed to racism and segregation, the story of a militant, racially integrated movement, led in part by blacks, was seen as far too threatening. Harriet, too, dismisses these courageous activists, largely portraying them as comfortable and patronizing.

Tubman relied heavily on this intricate web of communication and support first to liberate herself and then to effect rescues of others. That does not diminish her heroism, but rather is a testament to her intelligence and ability to identify allies and gain their trust and support. In addition to Frederick Douglass and John Brown, she found allies and friends among other key abolitionist figures like William Seward, who would become Lincoln’s secretary of state; Gerrit Smith, a member of the “Secret Six” (abolitionists who financed Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid); Thomas Higginson, also one of the “Secret Six” and the commander of the first regiment of freed slaves during the Civil War; Ralph Waldo Emerson and many of the women’s rights activists of the day.

But Hollywood wants us to believe that Tubman accomplished her rescues singlehandedly with scant human assistance, and that she was able to evade slave hunters because she received divine visions while unconscious (leaving out the fact that the assault was the earthly source of her unconsciousness). Whenever slave catchers and their bloodhounds are closing in, Tubman magically goes into one of her spells and receives a vision that guides her through a safer route. In another fictional scene, Tubman tells Still that she doesn’t need maps; God shows her the way.

Harriet Tubman was indeed a deeply religious woman, and her religious fervor found expression in visions. As with many other slaves, her religion preached endurance and patience as a way to survive the cruelty of slavery, but also embodied the idea that deliverance would one day come. Her religion was based on a desire to drown the slave system in blood. But to attribute her successful rescues to divine intervention does violence to her brilliance, courage and cunning.

It is impossible to know how many slaves gained freedom through the Underground Railroad. Recent estimates by historians put the number at some 1,000 who made it North each year, hardly enough to make a dent in a slave population that approached four million in 1860. As Frederick Douglass recalled:

“I never did more congenial, attractive, fascinating and satisfactory work. True, as a means of destroying slavery, it was like an attempt to bail out the ocean with a teaspoon, but the thought that there was one less slave, and one more freeman—having myself been a slave, and a fugitive slave—brought to my heart unspeakable joy.”

—Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1882)

The significance of the Underground Railroad, and the broader abolitionist movement, lies in the fact that it was the first racially integrated social movement in American history. The Underground Railroad represented a rallying point in abolition work and allowed the crystallization of a black abolitionist vanguard in the North.

Fugitive Slave Act

In 1850, Congress passed the draconian Fugitive Slave Act, fortifying a 1793 law that itself was enacted to put teeth into the U.S. Constitution’s fugitive slave clause. Part of one of a long series of compromises between the Northern bourgeoisie and the Southern slave power, the 1850 act extended the tentacles of slavery to all Northern states, making it a national institution. Federal power would be wielded to defend slavery as the law “commanded” all citizens to “aid and assist” U.S. marshals in the capture of escaped slaves. It included severe penalties for harboring slaves or interfering with their capture. A further threat to the life and freedom of black people was the 1857 Supreme Court Dred Scott decision, which stripped black people, free and slave, of citizenship in every state.

The Compromise of 1850, which also put conditions on the extension of slavery, was intended to mitigate the “irrepressible conflict” between two social systems. Instead, it drew the looming Civil War closer. The 1850s were marked by the North becoming aware that its continued development as a capitalist society was impeded by the Southern slave power, while the slaveholders increasingly realized that their political domination of the country was threatened.

In the North, the Fugitive Slave Act was met with fierce resistance, which the movie doesn’t address. John Brown formed a secret self-defense organization called the United States League of Gileadites to fight slave catchers. In several cities, including Boston and Syracuse, vigilance committees mobilized crowds that stormed courthouses and rescued fugitive slaves from federal agents and transported them to Canada.

In September 1851, William Parker, a black leader of a racially integrated underground operation in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, was sheltering four fugitive slaves being pursued by a well-armed posse led by slaveowner Edward Gorsuch and accompanied by federal marshals. The slave hunters were confronted by over 100 armed men and women, led by Parker. Gorsuch was killed in the fray and his son and nephew were beaten senseless. Parker and two of his men fled to the Rochester home of Frederick Douglass, who greeted them enthusiastically. For Douglass, these were “heroic defenders of the just rights of man against manstealers and murderers.”

Douglass had put the men on a ship to Canada. Before they departed, Parker handed Gorsuch’s revolver to Douglass as a memento. “The gun was a symbol,” writes Fergus Bordewich in Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad (2006). “Both men knew, that the war against slavery had taken a new and deadly turn, and that more, perhaps much more, violence lay ahead. It was one of the great moments in the history of the Underground Railroad.”

Parker and his comrades were the kind of men whom Douglass had in mind when in 1852 he addressed the convention of the National Free Soil Party (precursor to Lincoln’s Republican Party) in Pittsburgh: “The only way to make the Fugitive Slave Law a dead letter is to make half a dozen or more dead kidnappers.” Harriet twists this powerful declaration to portray Douglass as an opponent of the Underground Railroad in his cameo appearance. In that conjured scene, he and Still advise Tubman that the Fugitive Slave Act made any further rescue missions to the South too dangerous. When Douglass utters the famous dead kidnapper line, Tubman snaps back, “You been free so long, you forget what it’s like. You got comfortable and important.”

Tubman’s Civil War Years

The Civil War was America’s most formative and defining event, and the high point of black resistance to slavery, with 200,000 black troops helping to turn the tide of the war. But the Civil War is given short shrift at the very end of the movie. Tubman served for much of the war in the Union Army in various capacities—as a nurse, a cook, a scout, a spy and a military strategist.

In South Carolina, she played an important role in recruiting slaves to the Union Army. Tubman’s skills, honed in the Underground Railroad, enabled her to scout, undetected, behind Confederate lines, gathering information about rebel locations and movements. She established a network of spies among the slaves who were still living in Confederate territory. She organized black river pilots, who scouted the Combahee River area.

In this capacity, she was integral to the celebrated raid on the Combahee on 2 June 1863. Under the command of Colonel James Montgomery, a veteran alongside John Brown of guerrilla battles against pro-slavery thugs in Kansas in the 1850s, Harriet Tubman guided the raid deep into South Carolina. As the Boston Commonwealth (10 July 1863) reported: “Col. Montgomery and his gallant band of 300 black soldiers, under the guidance of a black woman, dashed into the enemy’s country, struck a bold and effective blow, destroying millions of dollars worth of commissary stores, cotton and lordly dwellings, and striking terror into the heart of rebeldom, brought off near 800 slaves and thousands of dollars worth of property, without losing a man or receiving a scratch.” Many of the liberated slaves were inducted into Montgomery’s regiment.

Just as the real history of the Underground Railroad has been buried, the significance of the short period of post-Civil War Radical Reconstruction has been distorted. The era of Radical Reconstruction was the most democratic period for black people in U.S. history, during which they acquired citizenship rights and the right to vote and to hold office, and gained access to education. The defeat of Reconstruction in the mid 1870s laid the basis for the rigid system of legally enforced racial segregation called Jim Crow.

Tubman got a taste of what would be in store for black people. While en route North after the Civil War, she was beaten and thrown into the baggage car by a train conductor who ridiculed her Union pass entitling her to free transportation as an army veteran. Shortly after began a decades-long battle for the pension owed for her war service. Tubman commented scornfully, “You wouldn’t think that after I served the flag so faithfully I should come to want in its folds.”

It wasn’t until 1895, after her second husband Nelson Davis, a war veteran, died that she received a widow’s pension of $8 a month. In 1899, when she was nearly 80 years old, the government finally gave some recognition of her service as a nurse. She received a full pension, much of which she used to establish a home for indigent elderly black people, named in honor of John Brown. Tubman died in 1913, over 90 years old.

Finish the Civil War!

The Civil War, the Second American Revolution, and the last progressive act of the U.S. capitalist class, ended chattel slavery and ushered in Radical Reconstruction. But the Civil War was not carried to its completion. The aspirations for full black equality went unfulfilled, as the victorious Northern bourgeoisie, in pursuit of its own class interest, made common cause with the vanquished Southern former slaveowners. The defeat of Reconstruction has left a lasting imprint on this society. Racial oppression remains at the core of American capitalism, with the black population consolidated as an oppressed race-color caste, the majority of whom are forcibly segregated at the bottom of society.

The finest pages of black history in America will be written in the struggle for a workers revolution to sweep away the capitalist order and to end wage slavery, racial oppression and imperialist war, opening the road to genuine black freedom. Won to the cause and the party of proletarian revolution, black workers, the most combative component of the American working class, will stand in the front ranks of the fight for a socialist America. We are dedicated to building a revolutionary workers party that is 70 percent black, Latino and other minorities. Finish the Civil War! For black liberation through socialist revolution!