By Sophie Foster
In observation of Frederick Douglass Day of Acknowledgment on Saturday, Feb. 11, Washington College invited the campus community to join together to view “Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom.”
The viewing, which was followed by a panel of speakers composed of the co-director and two of the film’s featured interviewees, was part of a communitywide celebration hosted by Bayside Helping Our Youth Achieve Success (H.O.Y.A.S.) in observance of the occasion. The day also included live music, a Douglass reenactor, keynote speakers, and other educational programming.
“Visions of Freedom” examined the life of Tubman, beginning with her childhood, during which she sustained head trauma at the hand of a slaveholder, which led to epilepsy and lifelong brain trauma that caused a lessening of fear reactions and what she believed to be visions from God about freeing enslaved people. Later in her life, this would lead to Tubman being among the first people to undergo brain surgery.
The film also explored Tubman’s most famous work with the Underground Railroad, as well as familial relationships, the background of her enslavement, her marriage prior to escaping slavery, and the later years of her life, which ended in 1913 when she was approximately 91 years old.
It was important that the film endeavor to explore the softer side of Tubman, including her family and her relationship with the natural world, according to documentary interviewee Angela Crenshaw ’04.
“We had a little less than an hour to tell the entirety of Harriet Tubman’s story, so obviously there were things we left out,” London said.
Many held the belief that Tubman and those like her were white men because of how little most thought of Black women and their capabilities.
According to Associate Provost of Diversity and Inclusion, Senior Equity Officer, and Associate Professor of English Dr. Alisha Knight, “this day of acknowledgment isn’t just about Douglass,” but is also about acknowledging history, including figures such as Tubman who made significant contributions to progress.
“Frederick Douglass was highly visible” in ways that Tubman was not always visible, Dr. Knight said.
According to Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience and documentary interviewee Dr. Adam Goodheart, Tubman was “the most visible of the invisible heroes.”
There were many like Tubman who did similar work and sought freedom for enslaved Black Americans without the credit she eventually received, according to Dr. Goodheart.
According to Crenshaw, a major focal point of her work with telling Tubman’s story was evaluating what links people to Harriet Tubman as a figure.
Tubman, born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, was shaped by the landscape and informed by her experiences in this region, which makes her story especially poignant for residents of Kent County, according to Dr. Knight.
This is the reality that informed the production of the film, co-directed by Stanley Nelson, Jr. and Nicole London, who visited the College to participate in the panel.
According to London, Tubman’s story is “lended to a lot of mythmaking,” so the creation of this film was motivated by a desire to try to make her “more of a human” rather than merely a symbol of endurance in the public’s eye.
“She was visible to the people that she worked with,” London said. “She was visible to the people that she did so much for.”
According to London, she is “happy for the recent resurgence in scholarship around Harriet Tubman,” particularly because the fact that Tubman ultimately lived a long life rather than “going out in a blaze of glory” makes it easier for some to forget the horrors of her experience and the significance of her efforts.
Crenshaw recommends the Harriet Tubman Byway for those interested in following in Tubman’s footsteps on the Underground Railroad.
For other opportunities to connect with this dialogue or learn about the legacy of freedom fighters such as Tubman, Bayside H.O.Y.A.S. can be engaged with on their website. “Visions of Freedom” is available now on PBS.
Photo by Olivia Long
Photo Caption: Adam Goodheart, Nicole London, and Angela Crenshaw ’04 answered questions from the film’s audience.