Growing up I devoured the Childhood of Famous Americans series, books about the formative years of historical giants like Paul Robeson, Hellen Keller, and Mahalia Jackson. The series was particularly diverse, and more than that, unlike the textbooks that often portrayed extraordinary men and women who loomed over everyone else, these books reminded me that these trailblazers started out as kids like me. The typical distance that one might feel learning about history was dissolved in a way, and I started to see these figures not as superhuman and far removed, but as human and familiar.
I felt something similar when watching this week’s daring and much anticipated episode, “Minty,” which breaks from the Underground timeline to pay homage to its true architect. At what appears to be in auction house in Philadelphia, Tubman gathers with a group of abolitionists to tell her life story. The audience is mostly white and includes Elizabeth (a familiar face in the crowd), but also a few black Americans. Everyone in the house is sympathetic to the cause, but as we’ll find out later, not everyone agrees with tactics.
The erosion of historical distance begins from the first images in “Minty” (Harriet Tubman’s nickname growing up). In a private section of the auction house, Tubman, alone, tightens her corset and prepares for the day ahead. She prays. We see her scars, which for me were shocking. The only pictures I’ve ever seen of Tubman were ones of strength and victory. Did she really incur the same indelible marks as everyone else ensnared in this system? Of course, but we too often forget that.
Next, as the crowd gathers down below, Harriet Tubman delivers a blistering monologue recounting her life in bondage and as a freedom fighter. She describes her early years and her first forays in resistance. Small victories, but wins nonetheless that allowed her to assert her humanity and taste freedom where most wouldn’t find any. “Minty” demands much of the viewer. In a show that is about as kinetic and action-packed as they come, “Minty” brings the narrative to a screeching halt and relies solely on the words and the performance of Aisha Hinds, a wonderful actress whom I first came across in CBS’ Under the Dome.
The static episode is somewhat helped by some solid sound editing, with Tubman using the space around her to dramatize her story. A smack on the table, for instance, emphasizes the crack of whip. I also appreciated the almost theater-like structure of the whole affair, with the show fading to black with each new phase of Tubman’s speech as if to simulate an intermission.
The staging here is also interesting. Remember that Tubman is in an auction house, with paintings and other inanimate things around her. You might even think you’re in a museum, only Hinds’ performance as Tubman brings the whole space (and episode) to life.
Much of what Tubman talks about is sobering, but when you least expect it, she laughs, tells a joke, and interacts with the crowd. This other side of Harriet Tubman, the human side, matters greatly to these storytellers. These more lighthearted and casual moments also help erode historical distance, and remind me of that powerful photo of Martin Luther King Jr. and Harry Belafonte laughing. And not just any laugh either. A deep great big belly laugh! Tubman, presumably, had those too.
Near the tail end of the episode, Tubman’s monologue shifts to what she sees on the horizon. This part is particularly relevant to Elizabeth, whose views have radicalized since the assassination of her husband. As soon as Tubman utters the name “John Brown”, the crowd starts to get worked up. Elizabeth hushes the crowd and Tubman continues, giving a pretty strong defense for Brown.
Being reminded about Tubman’s clear-eyed and revolutionary Christianity was also a more interesting part of this episode. And then of course, Underground weighs on current events with this great big bomb: “He will provide, but you gotta do your part. You gotta find what it means for you to be a soldier, beat back against those that are trying to kill everything good and right in the world, and talk about making it great again. We can’t afford to be just citizens in a time of war. That’ll be surrender, that’ll be giving up our future, and our souls. Ain’t nobody get to sit this one out, you hear me?”
Ade Adeniji | Contributor