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Harriet Tubman's 'Visions'


Harriet Tubman was a real-life superhero. And this weekend, the new movie "Harriet" opens. And it tells her story.


CYNTHIA ERIVO: (As Harriet) I would give every last drop of blood in my veins...


ERIVO: ...(As Harriet) Until this monster called slavery is dead.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As a young woman, she escaped from slavery. And over the course of her life, she helped hundreds of others do the same. She was also a suffragist and a spy during the Civil War. But how was she able to accomplish so much while avoiding near constant danger? One explanation is her visions. Leah Donnella from NPR's Code Switch team explains.

LEAH DONNELLA, BYLINE: Every so often, Harriet Tubman would collapse into what appeared to be a deep slumber. According to the people around her, during these slumbers, she thought she was communicating with a higher power.

KASI LEMMONS: And even her abolitionist friends, you know, they would say, well, I don't know if I believe it. But I'm certain she believes it. And we can't describe how she's able to survive.

DONNELLA: That's Kasi Lemmons, the director of the new movie "Harriet." Lemmons spent a long time thinking and reading about and researching Tubman. And she says over time, she came to believe that Tubman really was talking to God.

LEMMONS: If one chose not to believe that she was having visions from God, then it's incredible intuition, right?

DONNELLA: In the movie, Tubman's visions protect her. They warn her when danger is coming. In real life, those fainting spells were the result of a traumatic head injury.

KATE CLIFFORD LARSON: When she was 13 years old, she was accidentally hit in the head by a two-pound weight. And it hit her right in the head and cracked her skull.

DONNELLA: Kate Clifford Larson published a 2004 biography of Tubman called "Bound For The Promised Land." She says it took months for Tubman to recover from the injury. And it left her with a lasting condition - lifelong epileptic seizures.

LARSON: And, of course, in that time - you know, in the 1830s - there was no medical cure or any medication she could take to mitigate the seizures. And when she would have them, she would fall to the ground or look like she was asleep. But she wasn't. And she would have profound visions and dreams.

DONNELLA: Larson says sometimes Tubman described hearing angels singing. Sometimes she felt that she was floating above the earth. Tubman was already religious.

LARSON: But once she started having these visions, she really felt that God was close to her and guiding her.

DONNELLA: But whether or not Tubman believed she was talking to God, portraying her visions to a broad audience can be complicated. Matthew Hughey is a sociology professor at the University of Connecticut. He says that in Hollywood, black characters are often depicted as having a sort of spiritual or magical quality that white characters don't.

MATTHEW HUGHEY: White people are assumed to be smart, to be hardworking, to be problem solvers to figure these things out and do - to do that through science and materialism.

DONNELLA: But with black characters, Hughey says, it's different. Think Michael Clarke Duncan in "The Green Mile," Whoopi Goldberg in "Ghost," Will Smith in "The Legend of Bagger Vance." Their character's heroism is based on...

HUGHEY: A closer connection to the earth or the magic or the supernatural or the spiritual or the divine that white people somehow lost in their march toward civilization.

DONNELLA: Hughey says that as black characters gain more visibility in Hollywood, balancing how to portray them is going to take a lot of care.

HUGHEY: So the new ways in which blackness are portrayed are in some ways progressive and new and great. It's great that we have a story about Harriet Tubman.

DONNELLA: But as we get better at portraying black folks as superhuman, Hughey says, we also need to get better at portraying them as human. Leah Donnella, NPR News, Washington.


Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.