This is my third or fourth attempt at getting down into words what I’m trying to say after having watched the movie “Harriet” that was on HBO Saturday night. After having written several paragraphs, I would delete, shift or put them on the back burner, so to speak, in my frustration. It took me some time to realize just why I was frustrated, and I’m still not sure if I will be able to express it, but here I go again in hopes that clarity will be my friend.
The thing is, I learned enough about Harriet Tubman in school to know her name was synonymous with the Underground Railroad. In my mind, she was always a heroine, but I never really knew much more about her than that she helped free slaves, of which she had been one. However, after watching “Harriet,” I realized how little I had grasped of what she did. Even so, watching it on TV still didn’t put me in her shoes, or would there have been shoes as she tore through the brambles and bushes to escape from forced servitude? Quite likely not.
At one point, Harriet tells the son of the man who’d been her master that no human has the right to own another. “Yes!” I shouted at the TV. (I tend to get emotionally involved in movies like these.) Yet, there I was sitting in the comfort of my home, a glass of Chianti and bowl of popcorn at my side watching the horrors that only touched the surface of what this woman went through. It reminded me of a time when I was sitting with folklorist, radio producer Henrietta Yurchenco as her guest backstage at a Grateful Dead concert. (She was friends with Mickey Hart.) And somehow, we discussed protesting. She was in her eighties and told me that she’d been arrested numerous times from protesting racism, inequality, the government, etc., letting me know the importance of doing so. At the time, I couldn’t say the same and was embarrassed by it. She let me know that I should be.
As for Harriet Tubman, had she decided to stay in the North as a free woman, we quite likely would not know her name today. But she didn’t let those with more power keep her from doing what she was driven to do, as dangerous as it was, and went back to the South to free others. Yet, how far have we as a country really come? This is the part that frustrates me: It was well over a hundred years since Harriet Tubman risked freedom, not to mention her life, when John Lewis was brutally beaten with baseball bats, chains, and lead pipes by the police in the 1965 march in Selma, Alabama. He was also jailed even though he broke no law. Somehow, he managed to rise above the hate and racism and was a powerful figure in the Civil Rights movement, as well as becoming a U.S. Congressman.
As for me, I did eventually participate in the Women’s March a couple of years ago but know that holding a sign and chanting wasn’t and isn’t enough. (Admittedly, as much as I wanted to, I didn’t participate in any marches the last few months due to the pandemic.) I realize, though, that protesting against hate and racism feels ineffectual, especially when I watch current events. Will change ever come? I’m afraid of the answer.
“But I was free, and they should be free.” –Harriet Tubman