The Real Harriet
On November 1, 2019, a new film came to Hollywood.
This movie was simply called "Harriet."
Believe it or not, Harriet Tubman herself was against the re-enactment of slavery in any form of media.
Ella Reeve Bloor (1862-1951) doted on Stowe's success in her biographical sketch of the author's life:
...The first day the book was published, three thousand copies were sold, and the first year three hundred thousand copies. Almost in one day, the poor struggling wife and mother had become the best known woman in the world...
Stowe had gone from crippling poverty to celebrity status in a very short period of time. Stowe had five-star fans everywhere she went.
The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center says:
In the 19th century, the only book to outsell Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the Bible.
One preacher went as far as to suggest that the convictions Stowe brought to the American psyche were 'more vital than can possibly be...even...written by the very finger of God.'
But not everyone was sold on her work.
William Albert Sinclair (1857-1926), both a board member of the NAACP and a survivor of the "American Holocaust," wrote in 1905:
Uncle Tom's Cabin, that wonderful work of Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe, did not depict, nor even scarcely hint at, some of the grosser evils and barbarities of the system; and yet the White South winces over it.
Much in connection with the treatment of slaves and the raising of them for the home market was really unprintable.
A still from the PBS documentary Redeeming Uncle Tom: The Josiah Henson Story
(Source: Maryland Public Television)
Still, it might be argued that if there was ever a time when the life of the slave needed exposure, it was in a time when slavery was business as usual.
Stowe closed her novel by saying that she had been possessed by 'a desire to exhibit it in a living dramatic reality.'
But two years later, in her Keys to Uncle Tom's Cabin, she wrote:
The writer acknowledges that the book is a very inadequate representation of slavery; and it is so, necessarily, for this reason -- that slavery, in some of its workings, is too dreadful for the purposes of art. A work which should represent it strictly as it is would be a work which could not be read; and all works which ever mean to give pleasure must draw a veil somewhere, or they cannot succeed.
Edwin S. Porter's 1903 Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Slavery Days was the first movie on the subject of slavery, and in a time when films had no sound. Its director, Porter, was the first full-length film director in America. Porter based his adaptation of Stowe's work on the "Tom Shows," theatrical productions of her story which were increasingly popular after the Civil War.
At least eight other versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared on screen within the two decades that followed.
The story of Uncle Tom was a product of Stowe's personal anguish.
When she was nearly forty years old, and her heart was very sad over the death of her little baby, Charley — when she was grieving for the loss of his sweet little face and tender warm hands around her neck, she used to think, "How terrible it is for the poor slave mothers to have their own little ones torn from them and sold, not knowing where they are or who will care for them."
After the book was published, it was censored in many places. The more dramatic parts of the novel were usually left out of the screenplays and stage performances.
Still, Stowe was praised as a hero in her own right for bringing the plight of the American slave to the national and international spotlight. Over a million copies of Uncle Tom's Cabin were sold in England alone.
When she went to Europe later in her life, her journey was like that of a queen entering her kingdom, for every one wanted to do honor to the woman who had written that wonderful story of human slavery.
Author Harry Birdoff called it "The World's Greatest Hit."
Former slave Nat Love spread the word near and far.
Go and see the play of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and you will see the Black man's life as I saw it when a child.
Stowe's fame continued long after her death in 1896. Her story inspired plenty of advertisements, including a collectible comic series that, it seems, Walter Disney made for the Post Cereal Company. In 1934, J. Walter Thompson took out a full-page ad in Fortune Magazine in which he claimed that Uncle Tom's Cabin was Exhibit A on the power of 'idea advertising.' It is not by chance that his company is the biggest advertiser of our time.
Much of Stowe's story was derived from things she saw, heard, and read.
A still from the PBS documentary Redeeming Uncle Tom: The Josiah Henson Story
(Source: Maryland Public Television)
One of those "freedom narratives" she encountered was The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself., published in 1849. Henson, recognizing his own testimony in Stowe's Tom, went on to write a second edition Truth Stranger Than Fiction. Father Henson's Story of His Own Life six years later. Another 18 years afterwards, Henson brought another banger Uncle Tom's Story of His Life. An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson (Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom"). From 1789 to 1876. (Again revised in 1881.)
Like Love and Henson, Araminta Ross, the girl who became Harriet Tubman, had no formal introduction to American culture or American slavery.
She was born into it.
Hers was not merely 'a life among the lowly.'
She was the lowly.
Franklin Benjamin Sanborn (1831-1917), the second editor of the Boston Commonwealth, wrote this brief sketch of her life in 1863:
Sanborn met with Harriet in person on at least one ocassion.
He wrote that Harriet's family was only able to stay together through the fruits of her own earnest efforts.
She had ten brothers and sisters, of whom three are now living, all at the North, and all rescued from slavery by Harriet, before the War. She went back just as the South was preparing to secede, to bring away a fourth, but before she could reach her, she was dead. Three years before [in 1867], she had brought away her old father and mother, at great risk to herself.
Thanks to Secretary of State William Henry Seward (1801-1872), Harriet Tubman was able to obtain a plot of land and a house for her parents at a fair price.
Not many Blacks were as fortunate.
In his book, The Aftermath of Slavery: A Study of the Condition and Environment of the American Negro, Sinclair wrote:
This system of slavery, as it existed in the South, was as black as moral turpitude could make it.
Views of Slavery
Publisher: American Anti-Slavery Society
(Source: Library Company of Philadelphia)
The buying and selling, the separation and breaking up of Negro families were common all over the South. Neither age nor sex were regarded. The infant was snatched from the mother's arms; the father and mother of a family were torn from each other; they were sold, each in a different direction, never more to meet on earth. Strange, passing strange, that it never dawned on the White people of the South that
The terror of American slavery was more than the physical pain. To be apart from family and friends was a fate 'worse than death.'
And thus it was that when asked if she would see the Hollywood blockbuster Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet's response was not a "yes suh."
While Harriet was working as cook in one of the large hotels in Philadelphia, the play of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was being performed for many weeks every night. Some of her fellow servants wanted her to go and see it.
At this time, most of the Black roles, and especially the important ones, would have been filled by White actors wearing burnt cork. Porter's 14-minute production followed this arrangement as well.
Love's review of the play that Stowe inspired referred to her as 'the Black man's Saviour.'
Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Black man's Saviour, well deserves the sacred shrine she holds, along with the great Lincoln, in the Black man's heart.
Stowe loosened the chains; Lincoln broke them.
Hammatt Billings engraving, “The QuadrVictory”
From Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Boston: John P. Jewett, 1853), page 486
(Source: Harriet Beecher Stowe Center)
But who was Harriet Tubman?
Where did the life of "Moses" place within this parable of Black history?
Sure, Stowe was an abolitionist. She attended anti-slavery lectures and anti-slavery fairs whenever she could. But Harriet?
Harriet was ABOUT THAT LIFE.
If Harriet freed Tom, I wonder...
Would Love pay to see it?
Would he stay until the credits?
I would pay to hear Harriet's response to Love's take on Uncle Tom's Cabin.
I'm convinced that if Harriet heard him talk, she would hold no punches.
She might even call him an Uncle Tom!
It would seem that while Love saw the film (or the 2-minute trailer, at least), Harriet read the script.
Love spoke from his personal experiences. Harriet spoke for every man, woman, and child she stole away - from the plantation to salvation.
When it came to the dramatization of slavery, Bradford, too, hinted at a different view than Harriet.
By the graphic pen of Mrs. Stowe, the incidents of such a life as that of the subject of this little memoir might be wrought up into a tale of thrilling interest, equaling, if not exceeding, anything in her world-renowned "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
In Bradford's opinion, Harriet Tubman needed a movie. She deserved it.
If she had her way, Sarah Bradford might have produced "Harriet" herself!
The vote was moved. Sanborn seconded the motion.
...The stage is enlarged on which these dramas are played, the whole world now sit as spectators, and the desperation or the magnanimity of a poor Black woman has power to shake the nation that so long was deaf to her cries.
Apparently, as Bradford later acknowledged, writing Harriet's story was a plan that Stowe 'once projected,' but never carried out.
...but the story of Harriet Tubman needs not the drapery of fiction; the bare unadorned facts are enough to stir the hearts of the friends of humanity, the friends of liberty, the lovers of their country.
Bradford's interviews with Harriet served as the basis for her Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869). This book was published to raise money for Harriet, who was in danger of losing her home in Auburn.
Left: Title page of Braford's biography
Right: Fronstpiece - 'a woodcut likeness of Harriet, in her costume as scout' by J. C. Darby
(Source: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries)
Proceeds from the second edition, Harriet, Moses of Her People (1886), went to the Tubman House, a nursing home established by Harriet Tubman for African Americans.
These two biographies are the most comprehensive primary sources on Harriet's life. Almost everything that we know about Harriet Tubman comes from these two books.
Watching films and shows about American slavery is one way to bring these stories to life. But a combination of industry trends, artistic license, and the thrill factor in entertainment tends to dilute the authenticity of any good narrative and to remove it from its original context. The best education on this subject is found at the source.
Even as you watch Harriet, take some time to read the accounts of people who actually lived the events that are captured on screen.
In the words of Harriet Tubman, they are 'de real ting.'
And as Sanborn said of Harriet and the story she told:
She is too real a person, not to be true.
Click on the button below to learn more about the amazing life of Harriet Tubman.
Scientific Researcher, Independent Historian, and Co-Founder of Black Research Central
Black Research Central
When Negritude Meets Pettitude.