Harriet Tubman finally speaks to the people
The Underground cast and crew have been hyping this episode for the past two weeks, so going into this, expectations were high. Even last week’s episode of Underground hyped this one, giving characters dialogue about how Harriet Tubman had agreed to speak in public for a change. As I mentioned when Aisha Hinds made her debut on this show, the woman is legit and an instant highlight no matter where she shows up. Casting her as Harriet Tubman meant something, even without a special episode dedicated to her. Showrunners Misha Green and Joe Pokaski know that, so they made sure to use the endless resource that is Hinds’ acting ability for this episode. And what an episode this is. The screen may say, “Guest starring Aisha Hinds,” but that’s semantics. This is her episode. She owns it, and there’s no other way to put it.
It’s 99 percent a monologue, with that 1 percent dedicated to the brief moments during which a nervous Harriet Tubman prepares for this speech (silently praying beforehand, as the soundtrack plays a song that asks if freedom has ever been free), and then a moment when her audience finds itself caught off guard by a concept she introduces. Obviously, Green and Pokaski deserve a huge chunk of praise for writing such an episode — the term “tour de force” comes to mind — but it takes so much to turn those words from just words to something meaningful. To something powerful. Which is where Aisha Hinds comes in. Though we also can’t forget to send some praise the way of director Anthony Hemingway, who also directed this season’s premiere, as well as the season’s stellar “Ache.” Harriet simultaneously comes across as a woman of the people and a larger-than-life figure thanks to Hemingway’s direction.
Harriet’s walk to her rocking chair feels like longest walk ever, and to be fair, the way Underground presents it, it probably feels that way to her as well. But once she’s there, we are off to the races and on to a weighty episode. Harriet tells quite a few stories of her life and her struggle, and it’s hard not to just quote the entire episode line by line: “The world be affected by two things: what we know and what we believe. The first thing I knew was to be afraid of the white man. To be terrified of them carrying me away.”
Harriet calls slavery “the next thing to Hell,” and it’s here we get a more visceral discussion of what bondage means than the intellectual discussions Master Matthew has with his drunk friends over on the Roe plantation. She speaks of growing up “like a neglected weed” that was “ignorant of liberty.” But she was a defiant little weed, thinking that any “small victory” was akin to actual freedom. Like when she’d refuse to cry out during punishments, denying the slavers the reactions they were expecting when she got whipped.
But she eventually realized that pain couldn’t possibly equal freedom, so she truly knew nothing about being free: “I was the most rebellious thing. Mischievous too. And I took pride in that. Knowing they ain’t own me, in spirit. And maybe that’s how I ought to have ended up, finding freedom on the edges.” But then a white man threw a heavy iron weight at his rebellious slave and ended up hitting Harriet in the head with it. At the time, she was fussing with her hair, so she didn’t see it coming. After that, her “spells” started. “In my spells, my spirit would go traveling. Flying to distant lands. And I heard a voice of someone speaking in the language of the old prophets…” That someone, she says, was God, “showing [her] what was possible.”
That’s when Harriet realized her fits of defiance weren’t doing anything, and she set out to change that. “There ain’t no negotiations on freedom. I was spending all my time knowing things instead of believing them. And that’s the first step to truly being free. When you can see past all the things that you know and believe in something better. It ain’t easy, but that’s the work that must be done. I was finally on my way to being what everybody accused me of. I was ready to be a rebel.”
“Funny thing is, just because you believe something, doesn’t mean anybody else ready to.” Amen.