Cynthia Erivo is Not My Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Ross in 1822 on the plantation of Anthony Thompson on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She was born into chattel slavery and endured the physical and emotional tolls the moment she was born. As early as five years old she would be assigned to indoor kitchen duties before being rented out to care for a baby as a nursemaid. Each time the child she cared for would cry, Harriet was beaten. Her family was no stranger to the realities of slavery as they watched Harriet’s brother and sisters sold off to other plantations. She carried the lasting mental and physical scars of slavery throughout her life. Yet it was at age 12 she placed her body between an oversears heavy weight and a fellow slave. She recounts, “the weight broke my skull” and she would endure headaches and a sleep disorder for the remainder of her life.

Around the age of 27, Harriet broke free from the chains of slavery. Alone she traveled over 90 miles north to Pennsylvania to freedom with the support of the Underground Railroad. Once in Pennsylvania, she took up housekeeping in Philadelphia but she longed for family. Harriet did what most free people don’t do. She returned back south to guide her niece and her children to freedom. By the end of her life she had freed over seventy people in the backdrop of slave catchers, rewards for her capture, tracking dogs, guns, and harsh terrain. Over her life she became a conductor for the Underground Railroad leading enslaved people to freedom out of the South into the North, a nurse and a spy in the Civil War. She went on to become an American hero so much so that the Treasury announced her likeness will be printed on the twenty dollar bill.

But more than an American hero, Harriet is the quintessential heroine of the descendants of American Slaves. She defied all odds to secure freedom from the brutal realities of chattel slavery for herself and her family. As the descendant of American slaves, we teach our children about her legacy and contribution to our struggle for freedom in this country. A country that for almost 250 years forced labor, brutal physical and mental conditions upon us. From sun up to sun down our ancestors worked in the blazing sun on cotton and tobacco fields. There was little food, they made do with the scraps they were given. The brutal realities of our ancestors enslaved has a lasting impacts for the descendants of American slaves. Still one of the poorest subsets of the American population we lag behind in all major indicators of success.

Our people have a quiet pride about us. We endured almost 250 years of chattel slavery in America, a short lived Reconstruction period, lynchings, bombings, Jim Crow South, and redlining. Now we are living under mass incarceration, high unemployment, and outrageously high poverty rates. We come to far to from where we started from. Despite it all we will persist on. We are the only group of US born citizens who have ancestors that have endured involuntary servitude in this country. We have a unique history with this country. We are an anomaly. We aren’t like any other people on this planet. We have our own unique history and lineage that can’t be duplicated only imitated. No one can truly imitate us. We know who we are and we know where and what created us.

So when it was announced that British Nigerian, Cynthia Erivo would be playing Harriet Tubman in the upcoming biopic, we resisted. Some things can’t be studied only lived. We lived and are still living through a daily struggle for survival in the US. How can Cynthia truly express theatrically the life of a descendant of American slaves if she has no true reference point? It will be contrived and inauthentic. Moreover you are talking about trying to imitate the pain and scars of almost 250 years of slavery. And that pain and struggle is something that can’t duplicate. We are often imitated never duplicated. We are currently petitioning for a recast. Cynthia Erivo is not our Harriet Tubman. Her face is Black is true. But Black is not a shared lived history. Cynthia does not have a shared lived history with Descendants of American slaves. This casting error needs to be fixed immediately.