In her mind’s eye, University at Albany professor Janell Hobson has a pretty good picture of Harriet Tubman, and it looks nothing at all like the slave heroine portrayed in the 2012 movie “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” But at least she’s in the movie.
“It’s too bad that in the two Lincoln movies we have, she’s in the funny one, not the serious one,” said Hobson, referring to the absence of Tubman in Steven Spielberg’s highly acclaimed and more historically accurate “Lincoln.”
“Spielberg chose to ignore her, and to me that’s the only shortcoming in the movie. I think blacks could have been better represented in the film. It is about us.”
Tubman won’t be overlooked this weekend at the University at Albany when the college conducts a symposium titled “Harriet Tubman: A Legacy of Resistance” on Friday and Saturday at the Campus Center’s Assembly Hall.
‘Harriet Tubman: A Legacy of Resistance’
WHAT: A symposium on the life of Harriet Tubman
WHERE: Campus Center Assembly Hall at the University at Albany
WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $20 ($30 day of event), $5 for students
MORE INFO: www.albany.edu/harriet_tubman/symposium.html
Hobson, who has been at the University at Albany since 2001, put together the event and has signed on some of the nation’s top black scholars, all of them women, to participate in a series of lectures, workshops and panel discussions. There will also be a musical celebration at 7 on Friday night at Recital Hall with members of the American Opera Projects of Brooklyn performing songs from Nkeiru Okoye’s new folk opera, “Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom.”
Impetus for event
Hobson came up with the idea for a symposium on Tubman after attending last year’s Underground Railroad History Conference at Russell Sage in Troy. This year’s event, April 12-14 at Sage, is titled “Milestones on the Road to Freedom.”
“I saw that this year’s event was going to be about ‘Milestones to Freedom,’ and they were focusing on the Emancipation Proclamation, Tubman and the March on Washington,” said Hobson.
“Then I was talking to one of the professors in my department and she brought up possibly doing something here at Albany. Then, I realized March 13 was the 100th anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s death. So, it seemed like a great opportunity to talk about her legacy. We thought it’d be a good idea to reflect on her life 100 years after her death, and talk about her legacy of resistance. She is a symbol of liberation and freedom, for black women in particular.”
Tubman was born a slave on the Edward Brodas plantation near Bucktown in Dorchester County, Md., in either 1820 or 1821. In 1844 her master gave her permission to marry a freeman, John Tubman, who wasn’t at all interested in helping Harriet gain her freedom. In 1849, following the death of her master, Tubman, uncertain of her future, decided to seek her freedom and left her husband and Maryland in the middle of the night and followed the North Star to Pennsylvania.
This adventure was the first of numerous trips south and then north again for Tubman as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. She is credited with helping 300 slaves gain their freedom throughout the decade before the Civil War.
During the Civil War she worked as a cook and a nurse for the Union army. Like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, Tubman had the opportunity to meet Lincoln during the Civil War. Unlike her two abolitionist colleagues, however, Tubman declined the offer. But she was in the Washington, D.C., area throughout much of the war, and did meet Mary Todd Lincoln thanks to the efforts of Elizabeth Keckley, Mrs. Lincoln’s seamstress. In Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” however, Tubman and Truth are not mentioned in the film, and Douglass is given only a passing mention.
“I am glad to see someone like Elizabeth Keckley be included in the movie, but there were a number of other important figures like Douglass and Truth who actually met with Lincoln and helped him think differently about black people,” said Hobson.
“I really did like the movie, and I was hoping Daniel Day-Lewis would win his Oscar, but I just wish blacks would have been more prominently on display. There were plenty of them working hard to get the 13th Amendment passed. It wasn’t just Lincoln.”
Hobson’s interest in Tubman also put her in front of the screen for “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” which came out earlier in 2012. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov with screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith based on his novel, it is a totally fictitious look at our nation’s 16th president. The story has Lincoln not only fighting the Confederates but also several vampires that are aiding the Southern cause.
A subplot includes Mary Todd Lincoln joining forces with Tubman on a secret mission to bring ammunition to the soldiers at Gettysburg. Tubman is played by actress Jacqueline Fleming, a 35-year-old former model whose mother was Danish and father was African-American. As you might expect from Hollywood, she bears absolutely no resemblance to Tubman.
“On the black women’s blogosphere, some people were very upset with the actress they had playing Harriet,” said Hobson, who grew up in New York City and attended Emory University and Rutgers University.
“She is very light-skinned, bi-racial, and she looked nothing like Harriet Tubman. The movie touched on much more of the mythical Harriet Tubman than the historical one. Of course, it wasn’t a serious movie historically, and that’s why I was really looking forward to Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln,’ and that’s why, because of that one shortcoming, it was ruined for me. I thought the movie was very well-done, but it was missing something, and that was black people playing a prominent role.”
Hobson’s criticism is delivered with a smile and the light-hearted self-recognition that she shouldn’t take Hollywood too seriously. But her disappointment about the two Lincoln movies of 2012 make her that much more excited about Okoye’s folk opera that will be on display Friday night.
“They’re going to be doing snippets from the show, and Nkeiru will be there narrating the performance,” said Hobson. “We’re hoping to attract anyone with an interest in women’s black history and the Underground Railroad, and for those who love the arts and education Friday night will be the musical highlight. The performers are based in Brooklyn and they’re supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, so I’m very excited that we can tie them in with our symposium.”
Okoye, an adjunct music professor at Hofstra, has been featured in The New York Times for her composing talents, and The Baltimore Sun wrote that “ ‘Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom,’ is an ensemble of achingly beautiful arias, duets, trios and choruses that recount the major episodes in Tubman’s career.”
Hobson is an associate professor and the graduate director of women’s studies at the University at Albany. Her own image of Tubman is framed by Harriet’s harsh childhood. She was often ill from overwork as a young girl. At the age of 13, Tubman was hit by her master, the blow resulting in a series of narcoleptic seizures that continued throughout her life.
“I have a [mental] picture of her with the shotgun that she carried on her missions, so there is a kind of militancy related to her work on the Underground Railroad,” said Hobson.
“She’s very determined, but she also suffered a lot. It was a harsh life being a slave, and when she had her seizures she would also have a lot of visions. I think that disability might have made her seem very internal and spiritual. I don’t see her being gregarious or anything like that, but I do see that quiet determination.
“She’s always been this kind of iconic figure to me, but for the longest time I never knew anything more about her than she was a conductor on the Underground Railroad,” said Hobson. “It never went any deeper than that, and that’s why it’s important for us to tell her story and to discuss the substance of her life.”
Among the other speakers and panelists for Saturday’s program are Beverly Guy-Sheftall of Spelman College, Dann J. Boyd of the University of Pittsburgh, Vivian M. May of Syracuse University, Barbara McCaskill of the University of Georgia, and Andrea N. Williams of Ohio State University.