Harriet as Igbo

by Biko Agozino

This is not a spoiler. “Harriet” is a film without spoilers because the audience already can tell how the movie was going to end. What I would like to comment on are the symbolic representations that the director, Kasi Lemmons, brought into the narrative that will not make sense to viewers who are not familiar with the background Igbo world views of both Harriet Tubman and the actress who played that role, Cynthia Chinasaokwu Erivo.

Some critics reportedly protested against the casting of the award-winning “British” actress and singer to play the role of the iconic African American hero but if only the protesters knew that it is a case of an Igbo woman being portrayed by another Igbo woman. Besides, African Americans have played the roles of Africans in Hollywood without protests from Africans, who simply admire good acting by our Black brothers and sisters.

There was a carving that the father of Minty, short for Araminta, gave her when she went to tell him that she was fleeing to freedom from slavery. She kept it with her always just as Frederick Douglass kept a piece of wood that an elderly enslaved man gave him after he was beaten by an overseer. According to Douglass, no one ever beat him again in his life for he kept that piece of wood with him, just as the old man told him. 

The Igbo call such a piece of wood or carving, Ofo na Ogu, the symbol of innocence and blessings. The director, Kasi Lemmons, was probably reminding us throughout the movie that Harriet Tubman held Ofo and Ogu as a blessed innocent person and that that, in addition to her strong faith in God, was part of the reasons why she was bold in fighting for freedom from slavery for all, unlike Django who only went back to unchain his boo.

Harriet repeatedly claimed that she heard the voice of God but that was attributed, even by Black abolitionists, to “possible brain damage” from her head injury as a child when she was found in a barn with the white boy. The Igbo will agree with her claim that she heard the voice of God because the Igbo also believe that God is present in everyone as Chi, or God, a part of the Great God or Chiukwu, also known as Chineke, God the creator. Such a God or Chi would never subscribe to the pro-slavery gospel that the Black preacher was paid to preach to the congregation of the enslaved who were called upon to obey their masters and work hard for them as an honor to a white God. Harriet did not say amen to that prayer.

It is a shame that the leading actress, Cynthia Erivo, chose to go by her English first name when her Igbo name would have been more appropriate to the role. Chinasaokwu, the name that her Igbo parents gave her in England when she was born, means God answers accusations. Just as Minty dropped her slave name and chose a free name, perhaps to evade slave catchers who continued to search for runaway enslaved people especially after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, Cynthia should be challenged by her fans to drop the slave name and adopt her Igbo name, Chinasa, as her first name in honor of Harriet if not in honor of her own family. Her real last name, Erivo, literally translates as the unfed or the starving, a strange name that echoes memories of the mass starvation of the Igbo in Biafra, during which 3.1 million died. The actress owes it to herself to recover her Igbo name as her first name.

Incidentally, the name Harriet and her original slave name, Araminta, may have onomatopeic meanings in Igbo as Ha aya eti – they will never beat us – and Ala mu nta – my little land, or Aninta, a common Igbo name. Hayeti is, by coincidence, similar to the name that the Haitian Igbo revolutionaries gave to their new republic – Ayeti – and that is the way they still spell it in creole today, like the way that Harriet said that people pronounced Rit, her mother’s name that she took. It means in Igbo, they will never beat us. Even the name of the director of this movie, Kasi, also transliterates in Igbo as to console, suggesting the consolation for those who have suffered great injustice without being offered reparative justice.

Moreover, the name Moses that was attributed to Harriet by almost everyone, may also have an Igbo-sounding meaning – Moshishi, or the spirit said to say. The enslavers could not believe that an African woman was capable of leading such daring raids to free the enslaved and lead them to freedom in their hundreds. They claimed that she was a white abolitionist in “blackface,” which must have been a popular pastime of influential white men then and even now. 

The Harriet model of womanist activism can be found in Ogu Umunwanyi, during which Igbo women declared war against colonialism in 1929, only 16 years after Harriet passed away; the Abeokuta women’s rebellion against taxation in 1945; the Kikuyu women’s uprising against forced labor in the 1950s; the South African women’s defiance against the pass laws of apartheid in the 1950s; and the Liberian women’s praying of the devil back to hell to end the bloody civil war in the 1990s.

Unlike Western feminist activists who seek gender-separatism, the Africana womanists are exemplary in the sense that their demands always included the interests of suffering men and women in articulation or intersectionality instead of seeking divisive gender essentialism. This is part of the reasons why Professor Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi theorized that womanism was more appropriate than feminism as a description of the interests of African women within cultures that also inevitably include men as allies who can also be opponents in some ways but cannot be pigeon-holed essentially as all the enemies of “womandom.” The film, “Harriet,” showed that not even all white men were enemies during slavery given the important role played by white abolitionists, though some white women were among the worst enslavers and some Black men worked for the slave catchers to earn some money.

Harriet was fond of singing the freedom song, “Go down, Moses, go down to Egypt land and tell old Pharaoh to let my people go,” as a rallying signal for the enslaved to join the underground railroad to freedom. The biblical Moses was called an Egyptian and so, Harriet was not a Black Moses – the biblical Moses was obviously not white. The fact that Harriet was suspected to be a man goes to challenge the Western invention of women as gendered in submissive relations under patriarchy whereas gender is not a central feature of the conception of people in African cultures where generation, not gender, is more deferential and hegemonic, according to Oyeronke Oyemumi in “The Invention of Women.”

Harriet carried a gun with her for protection and used it to threaten some of her own family members who were too scared to go with her to freedom. But when she had the opportunity to shoot and kill her enslavers, she chose not to kill. This may seem strange to many fans of Hollywood who have come to expect the hero to be a blood-thirsty maniac in Tarantino movies. However, to the Igbo who suffered genocide, pogroms and mass killings in Nigeria without resorting to retaliatory killings, it is normal to leave the gravest wrongs in the hands of our Chi and instead invest our energies into rebuilding our beloved communities in accordance with the African philosophy of nonviolence that Gandhi admitted that he was taught in Africa and Martin Luther King Jr. followed to lead the Civil Rights Movement.

A puzzle that the film tried to solve was why many poor whites who did not enslave Africans continued to fight in support of what the film called the “lost cause” of slavery even after the Africans had asserted their right to freedom as fellow human beings. W.E.B. Du Bois explained this with the theory of the psychological wages of whiteness

However, the film differed slightly from the conventional interpretation of this theory by explaining that, according to Du Bois, it was not just psychological wages because there were huge structural privileges to even poor whites that they would like to defend – not to mention the hefty rewards placed on the heads of “Moses” and the runaway enslaved people to motivate poor whites to join the posse to try and recapture them. 

Also, the young white men were motivated by their lust for the bodies of young Black girls who were gang raped even “before their first blood” perhaps because they were brought up to think of Black girls as “pigs to be sold or eaten” but never to be loved by white men who fathered children that looked exactly like them and still enslaved their own flesh and blood or sold them for money.

The film represented Harriet leading a unit of African American soldiers in battle during the Civil War at the historic Combahee River point of the Black Womanist Rebellion statement. This was the only time that a woman commanded men in battle during the Civil War. It came to pass in fulfillment of the vision that Harriet shared with the young white man who was trying to recapture her as his property even though she prayed for him to survive typhoid as a child. 

She had disarmed him and made him climb down from his white horse, knelt him down and aimed his own rifle at him, and told him to listen to the coming sounds of the Civil War even before the war started. She prophesied that he was going to die with thousands of other young white men fighting for a lost cause. 

Dr. Biko Agozino

Then she rode off on his white horse, which did not discriminate between a white male rider and a black female rider. That war soon took an estimated 750,000 lives but it could have been avoided if white people simply accepted the fact that Black people were equally human and not property. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Dr. Agozino is a Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Tech. He can be reached at agozino@vt.edu.