According to ‘Abraham Lincoln’ Harriet Tubman Shouldn’t Be So Black

There are two things the American masses can’t seem to get enough of, revisionist history and vampires, so, hey, why not mash up the two and make a quick box office buck?

Enter film maker Tim Burton (yes, thee Tim Burton) and his just released bright idea, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” a re-imagined version of our 16th President as a hatchet-wielding, freedom fighting abolitionist on a quest for vengeance against the blood-sucking, slave-eating Confederate vampires who murdered his mother.

I’m guessing the film is as over the top as it sounds, which is probably why critics have mostly panned it; but, I can’t actually speak on whether this flick has any redeeming qualities, because, out of respect for Harriet Tubman, I will never see it.

(Yes, thee Harriet Tubman)

If you know even a little bit about Araminta Harriet Ross Tubman, you know that she stands as one of the greatest human beings who has ever inhaled oxygen on this blue marble we all call home.

No, that is not an exaggeration.

Harriet Tubman is a super hero’s super hero.

If you don’t know much about her, we’ll just place the blame for that squarely on the educators who cheated you. If you don’t learn more about her after today, there will be no one to blame but you. Google is, after all, the great equalizer. Or, you could read “Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People,” which is (at the time of this posting) absolutely free on Amazon.com

It is really difficult for me talk or write about Harriet Tubman without being overcome with emotion, because, even though I know many, many details of her life story (a story that is beyond amazing), I am painfully aware that the details I DO know are but a tiny fraction of all that this woman was, all that she saw, and all that she suffered so that others might live in freedom. Gazing at her picture both inspires and shames me; I am reminded of how much I have not done in comparison to this woman’s breathtaking life of service.

Born into slavery c. 1820, Araminta “Minty” Ross was forced to perform hard field labor from the time she was a small child. She witnessed several of her siblings being sold off to other owners (never to be seen again) and she once heard her mother, Harriet Greene Ross, threaten to split open the head of anyone who tried to sell her remaining children. That threat (which worked) was Minty’s first exposure to the idea of “resistance,” but it would not be her last.

Minty was permanently disabled at age 13 when she refused to help an overseer catch an escaping slave. The overseer threw a heavy metal weight at the fleeing slave and it missed and struck Minty in the head. Her owner allowed her two days to recover from the trauma, after which she was forced to work the fields with blood from the wound dripping down her face. She suffered with epileptic and narcoleptic spells for the rest of her life as a result of the injury.

Minty eventually married a free black man named John Tubman and adopted her mother’s name, Harriet, as her own. Never contented to be a slave, Harriet Tubman soon began plotting her solo journey North to freedom. Though her husband threatened to turn her in if she tried to run, Harriet escaped to Philadelphia where she established a base of operations and dared to return to the South twenty times to lead hundreds of souls to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Tubman famously never lost a passenger–a feat she attributed to a pistol at her side and direct communication from God.

Never captured, Tubman eventually served as a spy and nurse during the Civil War, became a suffragette after slavery was abolished, established a home for the aged, lived to be 93 years old, was buried with full military honors and has this inscription on her headstone:

“Servant of God, Well Done.”

So, when filmmakers start messing around with this woman’s legacy, those who love and revere her are definitely going to sit up and take notice.

What we notice about this Burton film is that somebody (Casting agent? Executive Producer? Director?) decided it wasn’t important to portray Harriet Tubman as the dark-skinned daughter of Africa that she most definitely was.

Harriet Tubman (left) & the actress cast to play her 

Tubman’s direct ancestors are believed to have been of the Ashanti tribe from what is now Ghana, West Africa. She was not “mulatto” and she received none of the advantages during her life (literacy, freedom, income, protection) that might have come from being mixed with the slave master’s blood.

Harriet Tubman’s dark skin is central to her story as a black American woman, and anyone who knows and respects the history of Africans in America would know that.

Which raises the question…

Why was Jaqueline Fleming even in the running for this part? (I get why she took the role, but it is lost on me how she could be cast here.)

Casting a movie is never haphazard. Casting agents are like character chemists who are responsible for connecting the audience to the actors and the actors to one another. Their expertise is generously compensated, and their track records are what get them gigs. A quite prolific casting agent, Mindy Marin, cast this movie, though she may not have had the final say in how Harriet should be portrayed.

But someone did. And someone decided she shouldn’t be so black. Someone decided Harriet Tubman should look less like herself and more like Jaqueline Fleming, and that someone had a reason which is left open to speculation.

So, let’s speculate:

Perhaps the closer a woman of African descent is to looking like a white woman, the more palatable she becomes to the audience.

And when a woman of African descent is darker-skinned it seems we are more comfortable if she stays in her place.

Removing Harriet Tubman’s pigment for the purpose of making her more “palatable” to an audience is called E R A S U R E. Distorting Harriet’s image so that it can no longer serve as an example of heroism to the successive generations of brown girls who resemble her is called E R A S U R E.

Erasure must be socially sanctioned if it is to be effective.

So, don’t sanction it. In honor of a great black American woman who devoted her life to freeing slaves and being of service to her fellow humankind, please do not support this film.

“I freed a thousand slaves; I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” -Harriet Tubman

And, if it’s not too much trouble…

:-/

…contact the film’s producers to let them know why:

@20thcenturyfox @bekmambetov @SimplyBurton

Bekmambetov Projects, Ltd.
11600 Dona Alicia Place
Studio City, CA 91604
Ph:(818)755-0640
Email: kathy@bazelevs.com

20th Century Fox Film Corporation
Attn: Scott Rudin
10201 W. Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90035
Ph: (310)369-1000


14 Responses to “According to ‘Abraham Lincoln’ Harriet Tubman Shouldn’t Be So Black”

  • JT Says:

    In a film in which Abraham Lincoln portrays a vampire hunter I doubt historical accuracy was the first priority. I take issue with the idea that Black folks portraying historical figures that they dont necessarily share the same complexion with is somehow a bad thing, it happens on stage all the time. If this had been the thinking of Spike Lee we never would have seen Denzel Washington in one of his best roles (Malcolm X)

    • Kathleen Cross Says:

      JT, you missed the entire point of the post which was a commentary on the erasure of dark skinned women in the media and in the culture in general. Denzel playing X is no threat to lighter-skinned black men they are not at risk of being erased. Name a film in which a dark-skinned black woman portrayed a heroic role where she was not a pitied side-kick or a mean character. Dark-skinned black men have had plenty of heroic roles, but lighter-skinned black women tend to be favored when casting heroic or desirable characters meant for black women.

      • Kathleen Cross Says:

        And the fact that it isn’t meant to be historically accurate won’t prevent young people from walking away from watching it with a picture in their heads of Harriet Tubman that is false. I bet all hell would break loose if Denzel were cast to play Abe Lincoln!

  • Blane Says:

    You used the phrase “begs the question” incorrectly.

    • Kathleen Cross Says:

      Thank you for your input! Actually, in its classic (original) usage you are correct, and many, if not most, editors would agree with you. But in modern usage “begs the question” is interchangeable with “raises the question.” But since it seems to have distracted you from the point of the post, it may do the same to others. I have edited it.

  • Jen McKeon Says:

    I had no idea Miss Tubman had such a messed up life, good lord! I won’t go and see the movie, or support it. I am white, and even I can’t understand why they don’t cast darker skinned black women in these roles. It’s disrespectful in my opinion.

    • Kathleen Cross Says:

      Thank you, Jen. Much of Tubman’s life was tragic, but she was known by her contemporaries for her unshakable faith in God (whom she credits with telling her which paths to take to avoid capture) and her HUGE HEART (and courage). Not only did she risk her life countless times to lead slaves to freedom, she adopted orphans, fed the destitute (even when she herself was hungry) and used the funds from the book written about her to open a home for the aged. Everyone who knew her had enormous respect for her.

      I love her.

      • Jen McKeon Says:

        See, I didn’t know all of that. I have a lot of respect for people who overcome hardships and diversity, and then proceed to help other people. I think I need to read more about Miss Tubman.

  • FutureRebbetzin Says:

    I can understand making her younger and prettier, but making her skin lighter? That’s ridiculous!

  • Ancalagon18 Says:

    Lincoln was also made younger and prettier in the movie. Not sure of his original complexion.
    Get a grip people, it’s a movie about vampires for chrissake. Denzel Washington was too dark to play malcolm X in my opinion and Will Smith was too light to play Ali. Nobody moaned about them.
    Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is not a PBS production on history. (Is Wesley Snipes in it? He’s as black as me)

    • Kathleen Cross Says:

      No one is moaning, nor do we need to ‘get a grip’ so tone down your “superior” rhetoric and understand that this is an issue of calling attention to a power structure in which the black woman who is not “mulatto looking” is continually degraded and/or made invisible by the choices of men (of every hue and stripe) who don’t value her.

      The examples you present of Denzel and Will Smith are straw dogs. Dark skinned black men are plentiful onscreen, and they are considered sexy, marriageable, attractive and valuable in our society–especially if they are sports or civic heroes. Their skin color variations are jut that–variations, and even if they have a more pronounced African phenotype(Lips, nose, hair) these features are less of a factor in their value as black men and more specifically as black actors. NOT SO WITH DARK SKINNED BLACK WOMEN.

      Harriet Tubman did not need to be made “younger and prettier”‘ in the movie because she was BEAUTIFUL in real life, you just do not have the eyes required to recognize how absolutely stunning she was as a human being. why does she have to look less African to be more attractive? Why do we have to change her for you? Change yourselves to see her beauty, damn it!

      I wish for ALL brown-skinned little girls to see Harriet portrayed as the dark African she was, so that they might value the Africa they recognize in their own faces. where is the crime in that? If Abraham lincoln;s image is desecrated in some way, there are thousands of other “heroic” white men to make up for that. To whom can little brown girls turn for heroic images in which they see themselves reflected back? NO, they have to look mixed with something light (non-black African) to be SEEN let alone ADMIRED in this colorist construct you seem completely satisfied to let stand.

      Perhaps if you had married a dark skinned woman, you might feel more inclined to respect and protect her image…

  • @novelistkc Says:

    http://t.co/XW1JiiHG <- Lord, help me not go off on these commenters… What part of colorism=injustice don’t people understand?

  • @KosherSoul Says:

    RT @novelistkc: http://t.co/XW1JiiHG <- Lord, help me not go off on these commenters… What part of colorism=injustice don’t people understand?

  • ElBandito Says:

    Your article is amazing. You kept a clearer head than I could when I watched the film. I actually gave up half-way through and was told by my friends that they never mentioned Jaqueline Flemming’s character once. The movie version of Harriet Tubman only appeared as the ‘odd helpful black woman’ for a couple of scenes and was apparently never seen again. The film never even said her name outloud whatsoever.

    So to me that is also unbelievable. Cast a ‘younger’ and ‘hotter’ person to play an actual down-to-earth hero who achieved so much in life. THEN, hand-wave her existence completely on screen and refuse her the right to be named or to be talked about between the characters. It was as if she was supposed to be the cameo in which everyone was supposed to recognise her on sight…except it failed completely.
    Which is unacceptable. Especially with recently thanks to the Hunger Games, some movie goers have proved that we have since lost the ability to empathise with characters who do not appear ‘white’.

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