Harriet Tubman Biographer Kate Clifford Larson Talks About the Abolitionist’s Deep Christian Faith and Upcoming Movie

Image: Glen Wilson / Focus Features

Harriet Tubman is one of America’s most iconic figures, as evidenced by the proposed (and still delayed) Harriet Tubman 20-dollar bill and the new biopic Harrietproduced by Focus Features.

After she escaped slavery in 1849, Tubman worked as the only female conductor on the Underground Railroad, assisting escapees along a short route through free states. She was one of the few who at great risk entered slave-holding states to extract slaves and lead them north to freedom. Nicknamed “Moses” by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, very few knew Harriet’s real identity; most assumed a man was making these voyages. Tubman also served in the US army as a nurse, advisor, scout, and spy. Her greatest feat in the service was leading the charge that freed over 750 slaves in the Combahee River Raid in South Carolina.

The film, which covers her life from 1849 to 1864, releases nationwide this weekend. Jenny McGill spoke recently with Kate Clifford Larson, author of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero, about the historical accuracy of the film, Tubman’s deep Christian faith, and the African American spirituals that were key to her rescue missions.

As a Harriet Tubman scholar, what were your overall impressions of the film?

I consulted on the script more than a year ago. I tried to keep the filmmakers as close to historically accurate as possible, and director Kasi Lemmons was very generous and wanted to do the right thing as much as she could.

They do get Tubman right. Cynthia Erivo plays a militant, headstrong Tubman, and I love that. The film has some wonderful personal touches that show Tubman as a woman, not just as a freedom fighter superhero. Lemmons had to make some compromises to tell a dramatic story in two hours, of course. The parts that are fictionalized are really compilations of other slave narratives that Lemmons read to inform her understanding of Tubman’s life and the lives of the enslaved. So while not everything happened to Tubman the way the film portrays, those things did happen to enslaved women, men, and children. The film presents the threats to families and to enslaved women, in particular.

The film also demonstrates beautifully the depth of Tubman’s great intelligence and fortitude. It shows how her faith sustained her and how her love of family moved her to risk her life over and over again. People respected Tubman, followed her, trusted her, and deeply admired her, and that’s shown well in the film.

Tell us about Tubman’s deeply held Christian faith.

She was raised in a deeply spiritual and faithful community—a community imbued with both African and Christian traditions. The seizures she experienced after a near-fatal head injury only enhanced her feeling that God was always surrounding her, loving her, and protecting her. She spoke of how sometimes God spoke to her and guided her and, even though she didn’t always understand the purpose or intent of the message, she trusted God and followed what she heard. Her faith sustained her through her darkest hours of fear, hopelessness, and loneliness.

How does that show up in the film?

The film makes it clear that she trusts God completely, even when she has doubts and fears. When Tubman is leading her brother Robert and others to freedom, she has a vision during a seizure of how to protect her party from harm. Tubman tells her refugees that they can’t cross the bridge and have to go a different way because she now knows that danger is near. They come to the river, and because of her vision, she trusts God to guide her safely across. She starts wading, not knowing how deep the river is. Her brother and the others are afraid, but she keeps praying and trusting that “God will see her through.” She makes it to the other side, and the refugees follow her.

In real life, Tubman did have seizures while conducting freedom seekers north. Her refugees had to wait them out until she recovered before they could move along. It was scary for them. And she did report sometimes receiving instructions from God while having a seizure. This particular scene in the film where they cross the river actually happened, though not when she was rescuing her brothers.

Tubman used African American spirituals deftly in her work. Would you describe how?

Tubman said that she sang a couple of spirituals as signals on the Underground Railroad. Two were “Oh Hail Ye Happy Spirits” and “Go Down, Moses.” Sometimes she would leave her refugees hiding somewhere while she went looking for food or help. She would alter the words a bit or change the tempo as a signal to them that it was safe or not safe to come out.

She also sang “Bound for the Promised Land” as a goodbye song to her mother—which Erivo sings in the movie—and as a signal that she was leaving and running away. There are other songs people have claimed that she used, but we go by what she said. She did not say she sang “Wade in the Water,” for instance, or “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” on her rescue missions. Only those songs noted above.

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Source: Christianity Today