My mind was racing as I walked out of a screening for the new movie Harriet.
I was looking at the faces around me and hoping the 11th graders I had invited from Charter High School for Architecture and Design had enjoyed seeing escaped slave Harriet Tubman (portrayed by Cynthia Erivo) run through the woods toward freedom as much as I did.
Also, I was thinking of a reader who had had the audacity to email me a couple of days earlier about a recent column and make the absurd claim that enslaved Africans had been “content” with their lot.
The Broomall man went on to write that not only were slaves “not abused” but “they liked their new life” on farms in America. His level of ignorance was so deep and so profoundly disturbing that I stopped responding, lest I let him know what I really thought of his logic and the poorly educated teachers who fed him that nonsense.
But now I’m thinking I may write him back and suggest that he go see Harriet, which opens Nov. 1. Perhaps he’ll see things differently after sitting in a darkened theater, watching the real-life story unfold of a young woman so desperate to be free that she ran off a plantation in Maryland, miraculously made her way to Philadelphia, then returned to the South repeatedly to help an estimated 300 slaves escape to freedom, too.
Given the rubbish that reader sent my way, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d never heard of her. It’s astonishing how many Americans are woefully ignorant about the institution of slavery and how the harsh treatment and discrimination associated with it didn’t end with the 13th Amendment in 1865.
You may recall the political backlash and disbelief after former first lady Michelle Obama’s 2016 comment about living in the White House and how it had been built by enslaved Africans. It was astonishing to me that this was news to so many people. Back then, former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly had the nerve to falsely claim, "Slaves that worked there were well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.”
It’s difficult for certain folks to admit how much of this country’s great riches were derived from unpaid human capital, but that’s the reality. And that reality is directly connected to the current significant wealth gap between black and white Americans. It’s also much easier to deny and sugarcoat than to stare down history amid increasing calls for reparations for those of us who are the direct descendants of slavery.
That’s why movies like Focus Features’ Harriet are so important. They teach not only the next generation, but also help those of us who were never taught our history. Granted, this biopic of Tubman is fictionalized, but it gets her story across. People who might never feel moved to research her life will walk away with an understanding of how awful slavery was and how it’s an outgrowth of white supremacy.
“It’s important for African American students and students in general," said Will Mega Ashantee, CHAD’s dean of students who also attended Wednesday’s screening at the Ritz Bourse. “In order to move forward in the future, [you need to] have a firm understanding of the past.”
One of the reasons we never seem to make great progress as a country in terms of race relations is because of ignorance and denial. Films like Harriet, in my opinion, can help push back against that. So, plan to pack the theaters. We did it for Black Panther, which was a huge box-office hit. Let’s do it again for Harriet.