Arts & Culture

Rediscovering the Story of Harriet Tubman

As a companion to the new film, the podcast Following Harriet dives into some of the darkest moments in U.S. history—and the story of the brave woman who led toward the light


As a child, writer and producer Tanner Latham didn’t spend much time studying the life of Harriet Tubman. The history books at his school in Piedmont, Alabama, typically summed up her life in a single page accompanied by a small black-and-white photograph. “I had no idea about her life because in the telling of Harriet’s story, people just turned the page,” Latham says. But as the executive producer of the new podcast, Following Harriet, Latham had the opportunity to share a deeper retelling of Tubman’s story. 

Following Harriet, sponsored by the Virginia Tourism Corporation, began as a way to invite listeners to explore historic locations in Virginia that served as a backdrop for the new film Harriet, which was released on November 1 and documents the life of the famed abolitionist who led hundreds of the enslaved to freedom. Although Tubman was enslaved in Maryland, filmmakers used historic Virginia locations such as Berkeley Plantation and the State Farm in Powhatan to recreate Maryland and Philadelphia in the nineteenth century. During four episodes, podcast narrator Celeste Headlee guides listeners through Tubman’s life with the help of experts such as Niya Bates, the director of African American history at Monticello; Erica Armstrong Dunbar, a history professor from Rutgers University; Stephanie Arduini, the director of education at the American Civil War Museum; and the musician Rhiannon Giddens. In addition to learning about Tubman’s extraordinary work on the Underground Railroad, listeners also hear about her time leading an espionage network for the Union Army, opening a home for poor and elderly African Americans, and her work with the Women’s Suffrage Movement after the war—stories that don’t often make it into the one-page summary of her life. 

Tanner Latham.

G&G caught up with Latham to talk about the making of Following Harriet and his hopes for what listeners take away from it. Read the interview below and listen to Following Harriet here

In the process of creating this podcast, what were some of the things you learned about Tubman that were most surprising to you? 

One of the things that is surprising about Harriet is that she did a lot of her work on the Underground Railroad in her twenties. When she decided that she wanted to be free, she was still a very young person. I just never really thought of that. I could never understand what it is that she felt and saw and faced every single day, but in a fractional way, when I thought about myself as a twenty-two year old, twenty-five year old, even a twenty-eight year old attempting to do the kinds of things that Harriet Tubman did in her twenties, it is incredibly inspiring to think about. 

 

What’s the meaning behind the title Following Harriet?

There’s a very literal sense where we follow this person through her life. Then, there obviously were people who were enslaved and they followed her on the Underground Railroad to freedom. And the third way is that we can follow her example. We can follow the life that she lived and learn from her and make choices in our life based on what she has shown us about how to live a life of bravery, courage, and conviction. 

 

The second episode dives into nineteenth-century history and the experiences of enslaved people at the presidential homes of Thomas Jefferson (Monticello) and James Madison (Montpelier), noting that many listeners likely aren’t aware that these presidents owned slaves. What did you learn in visiting those places?

Our country has an incredibly complex history, and at many points in our history, it has been incredibly dark and oppressive, and we don’t like talking about that. It’s so much easier for us to try to compartmentalize it, and then move on to something else. What has been so incredibly encouraging in the last five to ten years is that it is becoming more important to historical sites to offer a much more honest and accurate portrayal of their own history because James Madison would be nothing without the people who he enslaved. There would be no Montpelier without those people. There would be no Monticello without the people who Thomas Jefferson enslaved.

 

Episode three focuses on the importance of Harriet’s legacy today and draws on the terrible events that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 as an example of what can happen if we forget the past. How did you approach the Charlottesville section?

To be honest, we went head on with it. Charlottesville represents so many things for the state of Virginia. It was the home of Thomas Jefferson. It now is well known as being a very progressive, liberally-minded place, and yet what happened there a couple of years ago was such a striking and jarring event. As we were deciding on the types of sound design [to use for] the section of the podcast where we talked about Charlottesville, one of the options that we had on the table was to play a news recording of [white-supremacist] protestors. We considered playing that news report again but ultimately decided not to. We felt like we didn’t need to give more attention to that. 

 

You released this podcast to coincide with the upcoming film, Harriet. Where do you think this newfound desire to tell Harriet’s story is coming from? 

Right now, a story like Harriet Tubman’s is so important and is finally getting the attention it deserves because hers is a story that transcends. She represents so much as a person. She was not a myth. She was a real person who did real things that made a real change in the course of our country. If this person can do what she did with such conviction—if I can identify with what she felt and what she lived, then maybe I can take steps in my life that make our country a better place, that make my community a better place, that make my neighborhood a better place. I hope that [her story] opens up the floodgates and allows more stories like this to be told of people who were undervalued for a long time in their lives, people who were oppressed, people who overcame incredible obstacles to achieve the unthinkable. 


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