It was a chilly Friday night.
My shaky navigational skills and a wind chill factor of 14 degrees Fahrenheit had propelled me out of office well before closing hours that day. I was on my way to watch a play in Castillo Theatre on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. I gave myself plenty of time to arrive at the theatre before the start of ‘Harriet’s Return’ – the story of Harriet Tubman, an American abolitionist, humanitarian, an armed scout and spy for the United States Army during the American Civil War. The Treasury Department under the Obama administration had announced plans to replace Andrew Jackson with Tubman in the US 20 dollar bills. Interest in Harriet was gathering momentum in the US.
But, I never got to see the play that night.
Stepping out of the Hudson Yards station on 34th street into the biting cold, my iPhone and google died on me. After a futile wandering with fingers and toes utterly frozen, I stumbled on to Castillo theatre only to find that I was five minutes too late for the show. The box office had closed.
Harriet Tubman was a ‘free spirit’ who had defied all norms and rebelled against her ‘slave owners.’ Brought up by parents who urged her to find ‘purpose’ in her life, she bounced back from repeated injuries, ill-treatment, and hardships. She managed to escape slavery after many attempts. Her ingenuity kept her safe and out of reach from those who had announced bounties for her capture. But she never lost touch with those she left behind.
Harriet returned to the south 19 times after her escape, to guide 300 enslaved persons singlehandedly to the north. She was well known as a conductor on the Underground Railroad and led troops and missions during the Civil War. Harriet helped pioneer the women’s rights movement. She was recognised in her lifetime for her leadership in a male-dominated world.
When there was no social media or public support for what Harriet dared to do, she raised the standards for the values of freedom and dignity on par with her peer and contemporary African American hero, Fredrick Douglas.
A few days before my aborted journey to watch ‘Harriet’s Return,’ I had watched a documentary in a Cinema in Lower West Manhattan, about Zenzile Miriam Makeba, the famous singer called ‘African Nightingale. Miriam had spent several decades in exile outside South Africa, her homeland. Her country was under apartheid rule. She raised her voice against subjugation through her music, joining fellow singer and her husband for a brief while, Hugh Masakela.
Miriam kept up the pressure on the regime in South Africa from New York, where she lived for the first few years of her exile. She continued this work later from Guinea Bissau along with her husband, Stokely Carmichael. Stokely had himself sought refuge outside the US to escape arrest due to his engagement in the Black Panther movement.
Miriam was the first woman to speak on behalf of those oppressed in her country in the United Nations Assembly. She called the International community’s attention to atrocities against the coloured and the blacks in South Africa.
Harriet had yearned to be a wife to Tubman, a slave from another plantation, but she never could fulfill this dream. Tubman felt her desire for freedom was an unwarranted pipe dream and left her for another woman. Ironically years later, he was killed attempting to escape slavery.
Miriam lost her mother while in exile, and she could not say a proper goodbye to her until 1994 when her country gained freedom. She visited her grave only then. Her only daughter died at 29, leaving her children with Miriam to raise. The personal lives of these women remained compromised as a result of their rugged and unpredictable journeys in their quest for freedom and equality for those who came after.
My disappointment with missing ‘Harriet’s Return’ was alleviated somewhat when I watched the show ‘Coloured Museum’ by the Harlem Repertoire Theatre a few days later. It drew me into the history and culture of African-Americans. It threw light on their past through compelling and innovative use of imagery, dialogue, music, and art put together by young artists from the African American community.
A background display of murals and images of slaves shackled to the ship’s hold, accompanied the audience as they were transported across choppy seas to distant lands. The pain and yearning of those packed like sardines, bereft of water, and food, afraid of what awaited them in the end, was very palpable. My heart was heavy, and my mouth dry as I absorbed the pattern of separation, heartache, and loss of identity.
In my eagerness not to miss “Harriet’s Return,” I had landed at the theatre ten days in advance of the show! I returned to see the play and to witness a deeply personal, high energy journey into the private and public life of Harriet Tubman. The actor Karen Jones Meadows transformed from an 8-year-old to an 80-year-old Harriet over just two and a half hours of unhindered and heart stopping rendering of her life.
The indomitable spirit of Harriet and Miriam had long ago been indelibly cross-stitched into the present-day reality of race and colour. Both the women had paid a heavy, personal price for promoting freedom, dignity, and equality in an era where women were more seen than heard. Their brave and unstoppable efforts made sure that ‘Black Lives Did Matter’ for all generations to come.