Black Americans Have Every Right To Question Whether Cynthia Erivo Should Portray Harriet Tubman

September 18, 2018  |  

cynthia erivo harriet tubman controversy

NEW YORK, NY – SEPTEMBER 12: Actress Cynthia Erivo is seen arriving to Michael Kors Collection SS19 fashion show during New York Fashion Week at Pier 17 on September 12, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images)

The news that Cynthia Erivo would play Harriet Tubman is not new. In fact, it’s well over a year old at this point. We wrote about it in February 2017. At the time of her casting, I didn’t take any issue with it. Of course, I know she’s a British woman with Nigerian heritage, still having seen her embody the role of Celie in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple, I had no qualms about her portraying Tubman.

But things change from day to day.

Last month, author and commentator Luvvie Ajayi found herself in all types of hot water when she attempted to diss Tevin Campbell after his name was suggested as one of the performers for Aretha Franklin’s tribute. More than anything, it showed a complete disconnect from Black American culture. Simply because, Black Americans understand the cultural impact Campbell has, particularly for children of the late eighties and early nineties—the children who now heavily occupy Twitter. Luvvie’s misstep was one any of us could have made.

But instead of owning up to this relatively innocent mistake, she reframed the criticism she received into an attack on her Blackness. Which was never the issue. Not to mention, the whole thing unearthed some of Luvvie’s other tweets that pointed to more than a few incidents where she seemed to express a dismissal of Black American traditions—including Kwanzaa, HBCU’s, and “slave-dances“. It was more than just Tevin Campbell.  It begged the question: Can you comment, critique and profit from Black culture when you don’t seem to respect it? And for a woman whose audience is heavily and perhaps even predominately African American, it was a question we were justified in asking amidst what I know for some was deep disappointment.

Arah Iloabugichukwu wrote an amazing piece in response to Luvvie. So I won’t address her here. But Erivo’s name is linked to her because she has expressed support for Luvvie’s stance in the midst of last month’s controversy.

In the past few days, people have been sharing screenshots of Erivo’s tweets in support of Luvvie’s essay in which she claimed people were challenging her Blackness.

I get it. This is her fellow Nigerian sister. I’m sure she didn’t want to be a part of kicking her when the rest of the internet was. Still, the fact that she failed to understand the criticism directed toward Luvvie makes me wonder if she was the best choice to portray Harriet Tubman.

Perhaps Erivo was so moved by Luvvie’s plight because it’s so similar to her own. Recently one of Erivo’s Instagram followers questioned why the role of this Black American figure would be given to a Black Brit, a woman, who, as far as we know, has not descended from slaves. There’s also the issue Samuel L. Jackson raised last year when he described the preference Hollywood seems to have for casting Black British actors, rather than Black American ones. A commenter shared this frustration on Instagram writing:

“Why do you Brits come to the U.S. and take roles that should be reserved for African Americans? How would you feel [if] we went to your country and snagged all the acting roles? Why can’t you people create your own movies and roles in the U.K.? We paid the way for ourselves here, and you people come and take [shots] we worked hard for…”

Erivo responded, writing:

“Actors are free to go where they please for their work, but I dare you to do that fully as a Black woman in the U.K. If I see it, I applaud it. What was for someone else was never mine in the first place. Please believe that I have turned down roles I know I have no business playing. This role is not one of them…If you met me in the street and hadn’t heard me speak, would you know I was British, or would you simply see a Black woman?”

Later, she shared this post addressing the controversy even further:

View this post on Instagram

I struggled a little with whether or not to post anything about this role, because even though there is so much celebration and encouragement coming through, there’s also anger and offense spurred on by my being from the UK…..I guess there is a bigger conversation to be had about heritage and experience, also about who Harriet really was. That can not be had in an Instagram post, what I will say is that my journey to this woman has been long and detailed and one I have not taken lightly. Nothing has been given to me without me first putting the work in, people speak of foreign privilege and truthfully life would be unbelievably easy if that were applied to me but that is not my portion. I fought for the role of Celie, and spilled blood sweat and tears playing her, the same applies for every role I’ve earned, this will be no different. I hope that I do everyone, even those who are in doubt or are upset, proud. I hope I quell your fears, because I understand that is what it is. I cannot tell how protective I am of this woman and her story. I posted this because I cannot allow people to make me neglect to celebrate this honor. This story has gone unnoted for long enough and @debramchase Daniela Taplin and @focusfeatures are the perfect home the beautiful way Kasi Lemmons has told this story is more than a blessing. I am glad to be given the opportunity to bring the life of Harriet Tubman to you. I would be lying if I didn’t make it clear that this is scary, and I thank you in advance for the support. Love you much. ALL OF YOU! Yours truly ❤️❤️

A post shared by cynthiaerivo (@cynthiaerivo) on

I believe Erivo worked hard for this role. I think she has the potential and the passion to kill it. I’m not one of those people who will argue that Blacks across the diaspora shouldn’t be allowed to tell Black American stories. Lord knows there has been a fair share of Americans who’ve portrayed Africans and other Blacks around the world. But I would be lying if I said I didn’t question these tweets stating that African Americans are jealous of Africans in America. I’m concerned that she missed the fact that criticism of Luvvie was about respecting Black culture and not questioning her or any other African’s Blackness. The idea that an African is not Black is absurd. Africa is what makes us Black. No one made that argument.

Most Black Americas, are able to understand that our identity is not the only one that matters. But as a people who’ve had our customs, names and languages stolen from us, as the same people who built a culture that influences the entire world, we take seriously the invitations to portray, participate and profit off of that culture. There have been far too instances when it has been co-opted and commercialized by people who could not care less about Black people. So there is valid reason to at least question whether someone honors American Blackness as they should. Particularly, if this person is going to portray a woman who is, by many definitions, Black American royalty.

Veronica Wells is the culture editor at MadameNoire.com. She is also the author of “Bettah Days” and the creator of the website NoSugarNoCreamMag. You can follow her on Facebook and on Instagram and Twitter @VDubShrug.

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