The Story I Wish 'Harriet' Told Our Students

I took my children to see “Harriet” this past weekend, and I was truly entertained. The story of Harriet Tubman was one I learned about many years ago as a young girl during Black History Month. Little more than the fact that she freed a lot of slaves using the Underground Railroad was known to me, so I was looking forward to learning more about her through her biopic, especially since it was based on a true story. 

While the movie was entertaining, I want to caution educators who may use the movie as material to teach from to be careful, as there were things the writer admittedly fabricated for entertainment’s sake.

The first embellishment was the nature of Harriet’s name change. Although the writer would have the audience to believe that it was done to mark her freedom,  she actually changed her name when she got married as a way to honor her mother and her husband. 

Another fabrication was the slave owner’s son, Gideon Brodess, who never existed, as well as a well to do woman in Philadelphia named Marie Buchanon. There were other characters in the movie that were fictional to Harriet’s real life, as well as events that never really occurred. I took real issue with the addition of these fictional characters as I did not see the value of their role—“Gideon” ends up playing a “savior” of sorts for Harriet and "Marie" as a character just seems irresponsibly placed in the story.

I especially took issue with the made-up character “Bigger,” who plays a freed Black man who helps to capture slaves. While history does inform us that Black people did help to capture runaway slaves, what troubled me was that the movie did not develop the why of how the system of oppression and slavery made this type of betrayal possible.    

I could not understand why time was taken to tell half-truths and outright lies when the truth of her life in its totality is so compelling and interesting. As educators, we have a responsibility to bring truth to power. I know this is a term people often use, but I want us to break this down. In telling the truth—all of it—we honor our history and pay homage to our past while ensuring that we right wrongs as we look towards the future. 

What I Wish ‘Harriet’ Would Have Talked About 

Throughout the film, we watch a young girl develop into a heroine as she led about 70 people from slavery to freedom. By the movie’s end though, I wanted to see more of what was not covered. Sure, it was nice to watch what we knew, her escaping slavery and leading others to do the same, this is the story we were always told, but there was so much more to this brave woman’s life that was not covered.

I wanted to see how Harriet ended up serving as a spy and being the only woman to lead a mission during the Civil War. I wanted to know how she died poor. I wished they would have told the story about how she came to open up a home for elderly Black people in Auburn, New York. As a veteran, I wanted to hear about her fight with the government to receive payment for her service to the country. What a compelling story of perseverance that would have been to see her fight those injustices as a former slave and a woman in a time when many people refused to acknowledge her military service. 

I wanted more than a two-minute montage about The Combahee Ferry Raid in which Harriet led an operation that rescued over 700 slaves. How did they obtain Harriet’s assistance? What compelled her to fight? In what way was she used? How was her interaction with Colonel James Montgomery? How did the Union soldiers respond to working with and taking orders from Harriet Tubman? 

These are all parts of Harriet’s life that I wish “Harriet” would have addressed, developed and explained rather than the story portrayed on the big screen.

For educators who may use the film as teaching content in the future, understand that there are other materials that should be consulted prior to basing a lesson on the life of Harriet Tubman or anyone for that matter. There are biographies, historical narratives and information gathered by historians that tell the complexity of the life of Harriet. Ensure that you teach students the truth and do not be afraid to investigate the fictional portions of her life. Finally, for those educators who teach their students about Harriet—know that a two-hour film cannot capture the depth and the breadth of her life, especially one that is not true to history. 

Kelisa Wing
Kelisa Wing is the author of "Weeds & Seeds: How To Stay Positive in the Midst of Life’s Storms" and "Promises and Possibilities: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline" (both available on Amazon). She also is a 2017 State Teacher of the year, speaker, teacher and activist for discipline reform. Kelisa holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Maryland University College, a ...

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