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Parent’s Guide to Watching the Movie ‘Harriet’

I had the privilege of seeing a screening of the movie Harriet, directed by Kasi Lemmons about a month before it was released in theaters. So, be warned that this article has spoilers regarding the plot of the film although we are all familiar with the general Harriet Tubman story. I went to see the screening with my daughter and her dad, curious to see how the iconic woman we know as Harriet Tubman would be portrayed on screen. I had always been fascinated by Harriet Tubman’s life story, the bare bones of it that we were always told. In fact, one of my first books I selected on my own from Scholastic, as a voracious reader in first grade, was a small paperback book on the narrative of Harriet Tubman. Learning at six years-old about slavery and all of the brutality Harriet Tubman endured before escaping with her life was a lot to digest at such a young age. I remember having dreams of a young Harriet Tubman being knocked in the head by an overseer and almost dying and feeling like I literally wanted to cry. This new movie may not be as triggering as the paperback book that I read as a six year-old, but, it may have some questionable content that may lead your children, regardless their age, to ask questions, or worse, accept some things unquestioningly as solid fact. This article seeks to offer some suggestions when having a debrief with your kids after the movie.

scene from the film “Harriet” out in theatres now

Harriet Tubman, disabled survivor of brain trauma or a mystical, magical Negro with super-human abilities?

One of the heavy tropes used in the film was the “magical Negro” trope which presents a Black character as superhuman or blissfully non-human with capacities that make their existence atypical and peculiar. While applying mystical properties to said Black character, this trope often creates a Black character that is often exoticized and left to display mystical traits while lacking dimension and development that alludes to a human core. Movies like The Green Mile, The Legend of Bagger Vance and even, one of my favorite films, Ghost, use this trope which often leaves the leading Black character with little essence as a person and more of a mystical unknown. In Lemmons’ film, Harriet Tubman almost becomes an entire trope as her fainting spells due to traumatic brain injury are presented as spells of intense direction from a higher power. She just “knows” and this knowing of when to hide from approaching enslavers or exactly where to go with a band of runaways in her care is presented as an uncanny gift that is otherworldly. While a brief interaction with a Black pastor who becomes her first stop on the underground railroad gives some clue that maybe she has been instructed on how to navigate her route due to extensive memorization and study of star patterns and woodland routes, this interaction is trumped by at least six instances where she is depicted having a fainting spell that gives her psychic ability.

Discuss this trope with your children and how it appears in films that feature Black characters. Talk about the possibility that Harriet Tubman very may well have been psychic. But, also discuss what intuition is and how it is possible that a heightened sense of intuition is possible for anyone to develop if they practice being observant, empathetic and generally more aware of internal cues of how they feel about a certain situation. Also inform them of how rigorous it was to travel at night while being pursued. Discuss how Harriet had specific methods that she would employ, so specific and secret that she refused to share  many of them while she was alive and even after slavery ended. In short, rather than allow the magical Negro trope take precedence over the very real skill set Harriet Tubman had to have had to endure her rigorous journey multiple times, share factual information about what types of preparation was necessary to make such journeys by foot and at night.

Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman

Some Black people were free in the South and some were slaves? How was this possible?

It was quite surprising to find myself laughing at some of the purposefully humorous parts of the movie where Harriet was in dialogue with her father once she set off to escape. I didn’t think I would find anything in a movie about slavery comical. The director did a good job making those moments funny and heart-wrenching at the same time. What was not thoroughly discussed, however, was how Harriet Tubman’s father was free, her husband was free, yet, Harriet and siblings were enslaved. While an early scene alluded to why Harriet’s mother was still enslaved, very little explanation was given about how Harriet met her born-free husband, John and the dynamics surrounding that relationship. The presence of Black bounty hunters in this film also gave a very distorted role of the slave bounty hunter and failed to explain if the prominent Black bounty hunter characters depicted were actually working as freed Black men or as those enslaved by white slavemasters.

This interesting dynamic is a point of discussion with your child regarding the ways that some enslaved people were able to purchase their own freedom and the precarious status of freedom for Black people living during this time. The scene where Harriet Tubman, using someone else’s freedom papers, is still questioned and treated as an enslaved person is a good conversation to have to discuss the ways that free wasn’t necessary free back then. You can even bring the conversation forward to today to discuss ways that Black people still are treated as second class citizens and enslaved within the prison industrial complex even though the Emancipation Proclamation was supposed to end chattel slavery.

The real abolitionists Harriet Tubman and William Still who were depicted in the film

What or who was real? Who wasn’t?

The main thing that you should be clear with your children is that the movie Harriet is a work of fiction based on a real person’s life. Many elements of the film are made up. Harriet Tubman was very private and very little of her private life was known. Even less was known about her husband who was a free man. Most significant that we knew about him is that he did not run with Harriet. The entire love story created about them was fictionalized. The Janelle Monae character was made up. The evil antagonist of the movie chasing Harriet throughout the film was made up. Fragments of truth included William Still being a large help to her. He was a real person and a phenomenal archivist who has given us a lot of what we do know about our heroic Harriet Tubman. But, most of the characters were creations of the screenwriter, Gregory Allen and the white historian who consulted on the film, Kate Clifford Larsen. A great assignment (if you’re a homeschooling family, especially) is to have your children be fact-check detectives and do a comparative find of what exactly was true and what were some creatively added elements. I was disappointed to learn that Janelle Monae’s character was not only fictional, but, had no specific person who inspired the role. The fact that she was fictional and her demise in the film at the hands of a Black character made me wonder what was the reason for this creative choice if it was not based in a real experience.

In closing, talk with your kids after watching this movie. It is entertainment based on history and needs to be discussed. A film depicting a story about the extraordinary ancestor Harriet Tubman is long overdue and a thoughtful conversation about her life and impact is worthy of continued and substantive inclusion in our parenting practice.

Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman is a writer, cultural critic and homeschooling parent. She is founder of So Our Youth Aspire (SOYA).

Getting Started Homeschooling: Is a Co-Op for me?

My first up-close and personal observation of homeschooling — where a child was not enrolled in traditional schooling and the learning experience was solely curated by the parent– was when my mother decided to homeschool my brother who was in middle school. This was in the mid-1990’s. He had been in a Montessori magnet program in his Maryland school since all K-6 grade. After 6th grade, she had put him in a private Montessori school, but, was disappointed by some of the racist antics she observed by the director of the school and my brother’s teacher and pulled him out. She knew that middle school was a tricky time for children—both boys and girls—and decided to spend his 8th grade year as his teacher. Please note, I am the oldest of five children, all girls and one boy. My mother did not have a sense of urgency in choosing homeschooling for the rest of us as she did my brother. And, it makes sense.

Black families are choosing to homeschool because of environmental factors that range from punitive discipline to perceived violence and generally unsafe environments.

In general, public schools are less forgiving of the behaviors displayed by boys of color as they are of white children and girls. A new study found that Black boys and students with disabilities are the most vulnerable to punitive discipline tactics within public schools. In my work as a scholar of trends in African American homeschooling patterns, I am consistently finding literature that indicates that Black families are choosing to homeschool because of environmental factors that range from punitive discipline to perceived violence and generally unsafe environments. And, so, when moving your child from a perceived unsafe environment, you naturally want to find and create a safe space for your child to learn. With that mindset, you naturally might want to consider a homeschool cooperative as a foundational aspect of your homeschooling journey. This blog will explore what a co-op experience might look like and how to choose wisely.

What is a homeschool co-op?

A co-op is usually a group where the children and parents are both integral parts of the learning environment. Co-ops are generally started by a homeschooling parent or a group of homeschooling parents who decide to offer courses for their children to take together. Most co-ops hire outside contractors to teach the course and combine resources to pay the instructor. Some co-ops have the parents teach a course and waive costs if each parent is teaching a course. Some co-ops have membership fees in addition to the fees for the courses. Some don’t. A few co-ops are incorporated as nonprofits and receive grant funding that allows the courses to be free of charge to participants.

Some co-ops specialize in a discipline or academic focus like the Arts or STEM, while some co-ops specialize in a mindset such as Pan-African thought, Christianity, or College Prep. Some co-ops are only for a certain age group. Overall, co-ops are opportunities to meet other homeschooling families, provide your children with an opportunity to engage in socializing with other children their age and an opportunity for them to learn subjects you may not be equipped to teach them.

Learn what the mission of the homeschool co-op is and determine if it is compatible with your own

I have been part of co-ops that I learned were not aligned with my own mission statement despite the attraction of the title or academic focus. It can be discouraging at first, but, as you get better in understanding what your mission is as a home educator, you will get more discerning in what activities and groups you engage your child in. Learn what their mission statements are before settling solely on their title or age focus. I wrote an earlier blog post about writing mission statements.

Sometimes, you really don’t know if a co-op is compatible with your homeschooling goals until your child is already enrolled and engaged in co-op courses or activities. I realized that my personal learning experiences and my daughter’s personality and learning needs required a certain co-op experience. When I was a child, from an early age, my mother educated me at home me even though I attended public school. So, in a sense, she was homeschooling me. What that means is that she assigned me readings and engaged in cultural teachings in addition to the work I was responsible for in school. Her teachings focused on the global history of people of the African diaspora. By second grade, she had gotten a job at a Pan-Afrikan independent school as a pre-school teacher and was able to enroll me and my sister. She worked there for only two years before we moved to another city and enrolled again in public school. But, the foundation was already set for me. I had developed a lens in which I viewed the world, and it was from a perspective that was global, concerned about justice and equity and centered the experiences of people of the African diaspora.

As an adult, that is how I view the world around me and determine if a place is a fit for me. This is what we do as adults. Our experiences shape our perspectives. Yet, as a parent, it is not so cut and dry when making the determination on what is a fit for our children. Our children are individuals with unique experiences, needs and abilities. So, when considering a homeschooling co-op, you have to realize what is necessary for both you and your child and determine if the co-op meets those needs.

Our children are individuals with unique experiences, needs and abilities.

Assess if being part of a homeschool co-op adds or detracts from your child’s homeschool experience.

While, my daughter is an older homeschooling student now, I had to make these decisions when she was younger regarding whether a co-op was a fit or not. We had a lot of hit and misses. We tried co-ops that had certain academic focuses and found that the courses modeled a school environment that did not foster inquiry and synthesis and were flat out boring. We tried co-ops that had rigorous schedules that did not allow for my daughter and I to take our own field trips or engage in other activities which clashed with our mission. By the time she was in what would be her sixth grade year, we found a groove where we were doing mostly field trips and learning subjects at home taught by me or local courses at our local parks and recreation centers. When we attended co-op activities, it was usually for day trips or a course here and there. Once, I even taught for a co-op to give her an opportunity to engage with other kids for a bit before we went back to our preferred groove of intermittent co-op involvement.

Recently, I had to make a vital decision to allow my daughter to drop out of an experience she was part of with a homeschool co-op group. While the experience looked excellent on paper for a college application, my daughter was miserable participating in the experience and begged me each day if she could leave. She did not like being one of only three students over the age of 15 and after being exposed to college courses and a year of more self-directed study, she felt stifled. I had noticed she did not speak up or engage with the group and looked bored during most activities except for working with the writing coach. I let her drop out.

Less than a day later, she immediately latched on to a youth employment opportunity with our county that starts soon that will allow her to earn money, learn about something she is passionate about—horticulture—and gain skills that are transferrable to her end goal of having professional experience in horticulture and possibly majoring or minoring in it for college. Although, her first loves are writing and music production, she found something else that excited her and was aligned with our homeschool mission statement.

In closing, finding a homeschool co-op fit can be a rewarding fit. Keep in mind that nothing has to be permanent on your homeschooling journey. Your goal is to optimize your child’s unique learning experiences. Stay encouraged that you know what is best for your family’s homeschool journey and never be afraid to change course if necessary.

Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman is a homeschooling mother, a multi-media strategist and professional creative who has built an expansive interdisciplinary career as a professional in higher education, media, student development and the arts.  You can join her mailing list and register for her courses for homeschooling families at StudentMediaOnline.com.

Are you homeschooling an African American child who also takes courses at a community college? If so, consider having your child participate in this study for a $25 VISA Gift Card.

Join the Facebook group for Dual-Enrolled Homeschooled High School Students here