Rediscovering The Underground Railroad


Nkeiru Okoye gave one of the most famous women of the abolitionist movement a voice rooted in truth and full of melody.

Okoye’s two-act opera, “HARRIET TUBMAN: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom,” is commissioned by American Opera Projects and supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Act One, “In Slavery,” begins with a young Tubman born into slavery and focuses on her relationships, specifically her close bond with her sister, Rachel. In Act Two, “In Freedom,” Tubman — already an integral part of Philadelphia’s abolitionist network and the Underground Railroad — works alongside other African Americans, including Reverend Samuel Green and famed stationmaster William Still.

Okoye said she wanted to do a fictionalized account of Tubman on the Underground Railroad at first, but dismissed the idea when she realized how common they were.

“A lot of people are doing fictionalized versions, but I wanted to look into her humanity,” she said. “I thought why she did what she did — finding her motivation — was far more interesting than the fact that she did it.”

Most tales about Tubman center around her time on the Underground Railroad, but don’t mention her family, Okoye said. However, she said her opera reveals a lot about her family members and her husband John Tubman, a free man.

“A lot of times when you hear about her, she’s in isolation,” she said. “You don’t hear much other than the fact that she worked on the Underground Railroad.”

As a Black woman, Okoye said Tubman is “part of [her] history” and she didn’t want to follow the typical “master narrative,” or a few good men — typically white men — who come and rescue people of color.

“Most people don’t know there were other Black abolitionists, and that there was a lot of self-liberation at this time,” Okoye said. “I didn’t want that [master narrative], because the truth of Tubman’s life is…a wonderful story, a wonderful actuality.”

Okoye said she wanted to compose a folk opera that would engage people who don’t typically enjoy opera.

“I wanted it to be full of folk music that has very singable songs and melodies you can get into,” she said. “Folk operas are very accessible, but still challenging.”

Okoye explored African American folk music from the 19th century, as well as work songs, protest songs and dances. She said she stumbled on parlor music from the time and found minstrel songs, some written by African American composers.

“These songs, which violate Black people, specifically Black women, were written by my ancestors,” she said. “Some of the things were so incredibly offensive.”

The minstrel songs she heard that day inspired Okoye to write an anti-minstral song, which she said is one of her favorite songs in the opera.

“All these things they talk about negatively — the color of our skin, the size of our lips, the way our bodies are shaped — John Tubman sings to [Harriet] and makes them all the great things about Black women,” she said. “I wasn’t a songwriter, but now I am. I love all the lyrics, and of all the songs, that’s the one that made me smile.”

Part of Okoye’s struggle was learning to write an opera, as she had only written orchestral music, and building a network of contacts. She said she soon discovered and started attending conferences about Tubman.

“There are people who are enchanted with her story,” she said. “They have symposiums that are not your regular academic conferences. You find these networks and find out more pieces of her story.”

Okoye said the best part of composing is that she’s doing what she loves.

“I hear music in my head, write it down and hear it performed,” she said. “For this opera I had both sides — the easy and the struggle — but to be there and hear someone perform your piece is amazing every single time.”

American Opera Project will present an abridged version of Okoye’s opera at SUNY Albany on March 8.

On Sunday, Feb. 10 at 3 p.m., music from Okoye’s opera will be played during the concert, “A Ride on the Underground Railroad,” in Studley Theatre. In celebration of Black History Month and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the night will feature talent from SUNY New Paltz, the Newburgh Free Academy, the Poné Ensemble for New Music and three opera singers from New York City.