Harriet Tubman is no laughing matter

August 16, 2013
Russell Simmons arriving at an event in Los Angeles in February. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)
Russell Simmons arriving at an event in Los Angeles in February. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)

Russell Simmons should have known better.

The founder of the Def Jam label, had just recently lectured CNN anchor Don Lemon about ignoring the lingering effects of America’s history of racial discrimination in prescribing solutions to the ongoing challenges in the black community. (Lemon responded by telling Simmons he should “attack the problem, not the messenger.”) Now Simmons has been been accused of perverting that same history, using an African American heroine who fought against the horrific institution of slavery in a poor attempt at humor.

On August 14 Simmons’ “All Def Digital” Youtube channel published a video entitled “Harriet Tubman Sex tape”. Yes, you read that correctly: Harriet. Tubman. Sex. Tape.

According to the YouTube description, the “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape” is “the off-record account of how Harriet Tubman blackmailed her master into letting her run the Underground Railroad!” The re-enactment stars “YouTube sensations” DeStorm Power, Shanna Malcolm, and Jason Horton.

Said reenactment shows one of Tubman’s friends, a fellow slave, hiding in the closet in order to capture Tubman seducing her master. “All these years I’ve been acting like I didn’t enjoy our special time together,” Tubman says. The pair then has sex and afterwards Harriet’s master confesses his love for her, while she brushes him off.

As news of the video spread, many suspected that someone had hacked the Def Jam founder’s account. However, when people realized that the video had indeed been posted by Simmons, outrage spread across social media sites as the name “Harriet Tubman” trended. The NAACP asked Simmons to remove the video and he has since complied and posted a lengthy apology.

“In the whole history of Def Comedy Jam, I’ve never taken down a controversial comedian,” he wrote. “When my buddies from the NAACP called and asked me to take down the Harriet Tubman video from the All Def Digital YouTube channel and apologize, I agreed. I’m a very liberal person with thick skin and it’s hard to offend me. My first impression of the Harriet Tubman piece was that it was about what one of actors said in the video, that 162 years later, there’s still tremendous injustice. And Harriet Tubman outwitting the slave master, I thought it was politically correct. Silly me.”

Silly indeed.

Simmons’ apology was posted under this headline: “I Get It and I Respect It.”

But does he really “get” it and “respect it”? Shouldn’t he have realized that his video would only eternalize certain stereotypes, such as women using sex to get what they want? Does he now understand that his parody of Harriet Tubman terribly insults her and every other woman who has had to deal with sexual exploitation? How many thousands of women were subjected to rape and harassment throughout slavery? How many are subjected today?

A petition started Wednesday at Change.org, reads in part “Not only does the Harriet Tubman ‘sex tape’ make a mockery of the history of transatlantic slavery, Harriet Tubman’s memory in particular and the painful reality of sexual exploitation and terror in the lives of enslaved women, but the video also contributes to rape culture by perpetuating the myth that women only ‘pretend’ not to enjoy being forced into having sex against their will.”

Ironically enough, before this incident Russell Simons was a Good Will ambassador to the United Nations for the Permanent Memorial to honor the victims of slavery and the Transatlantic slave trade.

Of course Simmons and his “YouTube sensations” aren’t the first black comedians to tackle the issue of race. Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle come to mind. And there are those legendary comedians who consistently challenged the issue of race, such as Richard Pryor and  Dick Gregory.

Ask almost anyone of a certain age who  Gregory is and they’ll tell you straight away that he is a famed civil rights activist. Not everyone knows that he was once a comic, successfully using political satire to transform what white Americans thought about blacks. For example, the monologue that got Hugh Heffner’s attention in Chicago in 1961 goes like this:

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I understand there are a good many Southerners in the room tonight. I know the South very well. I spent twenty years there one night. Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, “We don’t serve colored people here.” I said, “That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people.”

Or consider Richard Pryor saying:

“I went to Zimbabwe… I know how white people feel in America now — relaxed! Cause when I heard the police car I knew they weren’t coming after me!”

These are all thought provoking statements. Sure, they might be funny, and most of what these comedians said was hilarious even, but when you look behind the words, behind the laughter, there is something much more meaningful here. Whether you are white or black, man or woman, when the laughter stops you are forced to consider and think about what was going on in America.

The Harriet Tubman Sex Tape does no such thing. There is nothing to laugh about and there are no positive lessons to be drawn. In a media rich world where people truly have a voice and the capacity to use it, sadly, many are not. And so Harriet Tubman, who was reverently called “Moses” by the hundreds of slaves she helped escape to freedom, is trending on Twitter, but for all of the wrong reasons.

Priscilla Lalisse-Jespersen is the editor and founder of Prissy Mag, an Anglophone Webzine about life in Paris as an expat, and the author of “Stockdale” and “Next of Kin.” Find her page on Facebook.

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Keli Goff | August 16, 2013