Harriet: the Movie, the Real History, and Urgent Lessons for the Next Civil War

The particular genius of Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet lies in its demystification of slavery and freedom, and showcasing the agency of individuals within the constraints, compulsions and clashes of capitalism and the slave system.

The conversation surrounding Harriet has largely been dominated by false and bad faith accusations of white savior narratives, complaints about casting a Black British actor in the starring role, and whether the plot was formulaic and uninspired (which considering the lack of similar films, seems quite difficult to pull off). Those conversations are worse than useless. Let’s get real.

Even many of the most well-known great Black figures of history have been systemically pushed into the shadows of popular culture and knowledge. Sanitized, mythologized, and hollowed out. Just consider the lack of major motion pictures about the lives of people ranging from Frederick Douglas to Zora Neal Hurston, from Langston Hughes to Paul Robeson to Huey Newton, from Denmark Vesey to Du Bois to Richard Wright to Ella Baker. Not only are these people deserving of films, not only would their enormous presence be fascinating and beautiful to see on the big screen, but to see history through the stories of their lives would add enormously to (and deeply challenge) people’s understanding of how we got to where we are today.

Harriet Tubman herself has been mythologized and decontextualized. As Lemmons told the New York Times, many books that do exist about her have “defanged her, declawed her, to make her more palatable…”

This movie not only restores her militancy, but it brings to life the contradictions ripping the United States apart in the years before the civil war. Without this context, it is impossible to understand Tubman’s courage and compulsion to take action in the way she did, and the resounding effect her actions had in the moment and down to today. Because revolutionary militance is not simply courage in the abstract. It’s the wherewithal and willingness to dive into the swirling current of history and change the course of society towards liberation. As we sit on the verge of a second civil war, it’s imperative to understand the forces at work pushing and pulling the various sides into shape, and looking at the first US civil war can give deep insight into that. As Bob Avakian has said, there is a direct line from the confederacy to the fascists of today.

Harriet the movie is not a documentary and it takes liberties with the timeline of events and many details. But these liberties enable the storyteller to pull together the big picture in a way that is, if anything, more accurate than a strict observance of facts could ever be.

In one scene Tubman returns to Philadelphia to sounds of panic and fear after one of many journeys liberating slaves. Guns are everywhere. There is the look of unleashed entitlement in the eyes of armed whites. It reminded me of what I saw firsthand in Charlottesville in 2017 and pictures of the Richmond Boogaloo earlier this year. It’s explained in this scene that the Fugitive Slave Act has been passed. Vigilantes, slavecatchers, and even US Marshals have essentially been given the green light to kidnap any Black people they can find for a profit. Tubman’s own former master comes to retrieve his runaway ‘property’ and is only repelled by force.

Almost every detail of this scene is false. But it draws together many events that did happen and the developments that were compelling change. First off, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in September of 1850, before Harriet’s first rescue mission. Secondly, while it’s passage emboldened white supremacists across the north, the outbreak of violence most similar to that shown in the streets of Philadelphia actually took place in Christiana, Pennsylvania memorialized as the Christiana riot where US marshals acting on behalf of slave owners attacked a home full of people who had escaped slavery. But more important than these factual discrepancies, it provides an essential understanding of the larger reality and it disrupts the dominant (false) narrative of ‘Slavery’ with a capital ‘S’ as simply a bad thing that the North eventually decided to abolish nationwide.

The slaveocracy’s voracious appetite for western expansion to serve the maintenance of their political power and their super-exploitive economic role in the development of capitalism was exceeded only by that of the embryonic formations of capitalism-imperialism: the north’s monopolies, large corporations, financial speculation, vertical integration, and technological development. Even as these two forces were battling it out, they had fed each others’ development and were dependent on each other. For the rulers, the question was not about the abolition of slavery or the end of industrial capitalism, it was about which faction would be dominant and which subordinate, and what kind of state, what kind of society, what kind of democracy would enable that. And this struggle was about what kind of ideas and relations would be restricted to enforce that. This battle was raging in the halls of power, and in the years before the civil war, with cotton booming (future confederate states accounting for over 70% of exports from the US by dollar value) the passing of the fugitive slave act and then the election of James Buchanan, it seemed that the slaveocracy was winning. But the contradictions were only sharpening, and this set the stage for the real life Harriet Tubman.

Slavery in Maryland and Virginia had been losing profitability for decades. Tideland tobacco growers were losing out to the cotton growers of the deep South who had an even more depraved ruling consensus around slavery, creating a situation where in the mid-Atlantic region it was more profitable to sell enslaved people than to work them. Increased urbanization was developing a class of wage laborers and the proximity to free states was enabling runaways. Even as slaves were being sold from this area down to Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and the like, the political might of the slaveocracy remained centralized in the DC area, as an important center of commerce and industry, but more importantly as it was home to the only slaveowning political force that could maintain an alliance between the interests of the Deep South, Appalachia, New Orleans and the developing far west. The battle over whether the westward expansion of the US would be comprised of slave states or free states was roiling. The fabric of society, the ruling norms, the compromises and alliances that held the US together, which enabled its founding, were being torn apart.

Slavery was bad enough, and enslaved people had risen up in various ways throughout its history. But these contradictions of slaves being sold south; the financial struggles of slaveowners across the area; proximity to free states; the threat of secession and/or civil war looming; multiple challenges to the moral legitimacy of slavery from the north and from Europe, from Mexico and even from sections of southern whites who no longer directly benefitted from slavery and bristled at the tyrannical limits imposed on their own speech and thought:* these were the conditions that compelled, enabled, and contextualized Harriet Tubman’s actions. Whether or not Tubman stowed away in a hay wagon whose white driver knowingly but passively enabled her escape, we do know that non-slaveowning whites in that area were much less dependent by that time on the slave economy than were their deep south counterpart, loosening the political loyalty of many in various directions. And while Frederick Douglas most likely did not tell Harriet that her raids were becoming too dangerous, we do know that there was contention between those who wanted to pressure and rely on the Federal Government (whose main goal was maintaining the union) and others whose goal was liberating slaves by any means necessary.

Today, the challenges before the US empire are different than those which confronted the slaveocracy (and the rulers of the US as a whole) in the 1850s. The various sections of the ruling class today are not tied as directly to particular regions or industries as they were then, but they are tied to competing forms of political rule and legitimacy. Today, instead of an engine for the development and expansion of capitalism, the US holds the top-dog position in a fully globalized capitalist-imperialist system. The ruling class’ efforts to maintain, legitimize, and solidify that position today are facing the challenges of global warming, the aspiration of subservient states for their best possible position, and massive global migration instead of the 1850s’ westward expansion, political machinations of dominant European powers, the full-steam genocide of the indigenous people, and rapid developments in agriculture. This is all compelling the modern ruling classes towards fascism, just as it pushed the antebellum ruling classes towards the nationwide empowerment of the slaveocracy. The fabric of society is being ripped up, ruling norms eviscerated.

Our options are different but in some ways parallel to the abolitionists of that time. Will we try to pressure the US government into doing the right thing? Will we put all our energies into maintaining an unsustainable status quo, trying to go back to the way things were? Or will we go all in for the emancipation of humanity?

The civil war resolved the major contradictions of its day in a way that liberated Black people and also served the interests of the northern capitalist ruling class. Even that victory was only achieved through revolutionary means, namely the emancipation of southern slaves and enlisting them (even if in subordinate positions) in the Union war effort. The Combahee river raids (shown at the end of the film) were a prime example of this, and they were not the preferred methods of the Union state or army until they became the only possible solution. Most importantly, they were only possible through the sustained advocacy for liberation and against the subordination of that agenda to the maintenance of the Union. Today it is still possible to defeat fascism even short of revolution, averting much greater horrors while also in effect empowering the non-fascist elements of the ruling class. This would be worth it. And it can be done, but only through immense struggle, unleashing the people outside of the normal channels of politics-as-usual.

As it happened, even though slavery was ended, reconstruction was defeated, most of the immediate gains towards Black peoples’ full citizenship and empowerment were thwarted, and the United States reconstituted with different forms of white supremacy in command. But the revolutionary elements of the civil war opened up the possibilities of something radically better. Different futures were in fierce contention and what ended up happening was not preordained. Today through breaking people out of the political straightjackets of bourgeois politics and ideology, we can not only defeat fascism but open up the possibility for a radically better future. One key difference between then and now is imperative in making that happen. Whereas religious passion, like Tubman’s perceived direct connection to god, can still compel people to play a very positive role, today we have a science of human liberation, the New Communism, that can chart a path beyond the end of chattel slavery, beyond the integration of oppressed nations, beyond lifting the boot off our neck just high enough to breath, beyond the horizon of bourgeois right, beyond all exploitation and oppression.

This must be widely studied, grasped, popularized and most importantly, wielded.

Harriet Tubman should be an enormous inspiration to many. The history of this country, its crimes and compulsions should be studied and discussed broadly. And the movie “Harriet” should be used as part of making that happen. It is a powerful tool in the hands of the people.

*its popular these days to place historic struggles in the realm of good and evil, abstracted from the contradictions and compulsions of the time. While many enslaved people were against slavery because they righteously desired the rights of full human beings, and some non-Black people were on board with that, most of the moral and ideological challenges that the slaveocracy faced had nothing to do with the humanity of the enslaved, but to do with competing economic forms, different kinds of white supremacy and often a desire to be rid of Black people altogether. The most important question is not whether these people should be morally condemned from afar, but how they related to and impacted those who were fighting for liberation, and what we can learn from that experience.

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