“It’s so much bigger than a performance,” Aisha Hinds says through tears to a circle of female journalists at the tail-end of a conference call. It’s less than a week before her historic embodiment of the iconic Harriet Tubman in an unprecedented one-hour episode of Underground. It’s much different from her appearances throughout this season. Think about it this way: Michelle Obama didn’t even get nearly an hour of just her speaking with minimal interruptions when she was FLOTUS! Not even Oprah has spoken for nearly an hour and she literally has her OWN network!! Aisha Hinds’s Harriet Tubman is a one-woman tour de force where she alone does all the heavy-lifting. It is a transformative night of Black television.
On the conference call, Aisha Hinds doesn’t speak of what this night means to others. She speaks of what it means to her, what it means to US. The many Black women whose voices are never heard often by nobody but just us. There’s no denying that Harriet Tubman has been having a great run over the last few years. Mainstream interest in her has never been more heightened. The fact that our Jacksons will now be Tubmans is a testament to that.
Still how many have heard her cry, truly appreciate her story? I am not exaggerating when I say that, after watching Aisha Hinds as Harriet Tubman, you will truly see her: a woman so strong she refused to bend. A spirit so big that, over 150 years late, she is still giving us life.
It’s a responsibility so large that Hinds admits to not feeling worthy. “I had nothing to offer it,” she says of playing Harriet Tubman in the solo episode. “As a human being. As an actor,” she adds.
“There was no craft in the world that could really do justice to earn this woman’s legacy,” she explains. “I just had to reduce myself and put [away] all the butterflies and open my heart and open my spirit and allow myself to focus so that she could just consume me, fill me up and just use my voice to share her story. And that was something that really challenged me to dig into the depths of my faith that I had yet to unearth.”
In order to get to the place where she felt she could even attempt Harriet Tubman, Hinds, who says, initially, “I couldn’t see parts of myself in her,” had to rely on the facts before letting faith take over.
“It was only after sort of studying more about her and understanding just how much her life was governed by a spiritual compass that I realized that our spirits were probably speaking the same language and have been speaking the same language,” she explains. “That is the thing that was most critical and pivotal in taking on this project and taking on this responsibility.”
In the hour, we get a glimpse of the first memory Araminta, her birth name, had of being enslaved as a child. We learn of the first time she decided to run and why it was unsuccessful. We also feel her first taste of freedom and how she decided to help others. We get a feel for her views on slavery. And most empowering, we feel the depths of her spirituality, especially when she speaks on her God and their God.
Harriet Tubman never learned to read or write but consented to and actively participated in two memoirs on her life. Even before Hinds knew she would play Tubman, she poured over Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, published in 1869, and Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People in 1886, both written by Susan H. Bradford. How we got these volumes is bittersweet. Despite serving as a spy and a nurse in the Civil War, Harriet Tubman was one of those veterans deserving of Colin Kaepernick’s kneels. Denied compensation from the U.S. government, Tubman consented to books on her life to raise money to support herself.
Underground co-creator Misha Green and executive producer Anthony Hemingway, who are both Black, are driving forces behind this episode titled “Minty,” which was Harriet Tubman’s childhood nickname. Green co-wrote the episode and Hemingway directed it. Perhaps even more important, they and Hinds have a bond, a circle of trust. That was crucial in Hinds stripping back the layers and channeling Tubman. As a result, there is an unrelenting power in her performance that conjures up the sheer will on which Tubman and many unnamed others relied to achieve the impossible. One of the secrets, as revealed by Hinds, speaks to the process of claiming one’s freedom.
“And that’s the first step to truly being free,” Hinds’s Tubman says, “when you can see past all the things that you know and believe in something better.”
It’s that “believing in something better” that Underground has seized upon since day one. While Underground chops and screws the facts and jumbles up the times, it never loses sight of “believing in something better.” It’s why so many people are finally seeing those people history calls slaves. And now we can celebrate Harriet Tubman for the super human she truly was.
For this, Aisha Hinds’s name should be engraved on an Emmy trophy immediately. But, even if they miss yet another one, Harriet Tubman is still showing us that, as long as we bank on us, we will always be alright.
WGN America will air Underground an hour early, at 7 pm CT/8pm ET, Wednesday, April 12 and encore it throughout the night.
Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of African American History For Dummies. Follow her on Twitter, @rondaracha.