Harriet Tubman's life was like an action movie. It wasn't always portrayed that way.

Oyin Adedoyin, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in Entertainment News

BALTIMORE -- In the trailer for the upcoming Harriet Tubman biopic "Harriet," the abolitionist, played by actress Cynthia Erivo, is seen carrying and firing a firearm in multiple scenes.

Here, she's shooting a handgun as she flees on the back of a horse. There, she's pointing it at a threat as she shelters a girl in her arms. Over there, she's aiming a long gun and leading a pack of Union soldiers.

An armed Tubman is historically accurate: The native of Maryland's Dorchester County used guns for self-defense. She kept a revolver on her as she led hundreds of slaves to freedom in the Underground Railroad in the early- to mid-1800s.

But it's not a typical depiction of Tubman, according to experts and a survey of images online. That's because of racial and gender stereotypes that largely began to soften her image after the 1940s, according to experts. But, historians and artists say, it's time for more realistic portrayals of the woman revered as a conductor on the metaphorical Underground Railroad.

"History has a way of rewriting the narrative and kind of using history as a political smokescreen so that we kind of take the teeth away from the real bite of what happened," Morgan State University archivist Ida Jones said.

Jones expressed concern about history's penchant for oversimplifying the lives of historical figures when considering them in the context of a character.


A survey of the dozens of Harriet Tubman books on Amazon shows covers portraying Tubman in a variety of manners, but few of her armed.

By comparison, an Amazon survey of books on another notable 19th-century American -- frontiersman Daniel Boone -- frequently show him toting his Kentucky long rifle.

The upcoming Focus Features film "Harriet" is not the first time the iconic Marylander has been depicted armed in the media. Tubman is brandishing a sharpshooter's rifle as she leads other escaped slaves through the forest on the front cover of the second edition of a 1960s comic book called Golden Legacy, which featured notable figures in African American history.

"Guns were important to black freedom efforts," said Johns Hopkins University associate history professor Nathan Connolly. "This acknowledgement is not new to the 21st century."


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