In defense of a fellow Harriet, or, Russell Simmons, what is wrong with you?

She’s not amused, and neither am I. (Picture from the Library of Congress).

Even though Harriet is not my real name, I feel a certain fondness for Harriets, both fictional (Vane, the Spy) and real (Waters, Beecher Stowe, Nelson) — and of course, Harriet Tubman.

But even if we didn’t share a chosen name (did you know that Tubman’s owners named her Araminta?  She chose to go by Harriet at around the same time she began planning her escape from slavery)*, I’d still be writing about Harriet Tubman today.

Sadly, it isn’t because of her amazing life story, or the effects of her courageous work with the Underground Railroad.

No, I’m writing about Harriet Tubman because Russell Simmons thought it would be funny to create a “Drunk History”-like** video*** in which Tubman uses a sex tape to blackmail her owner.

And then, when he got called on this piece of bullshit, Simmons pulled the video, and issued a classic “I’m sorry you were offended” apology on Twitter.  For a full summary, see Jezebel’s take on the bruhaha (some of the comments are really good).  What it all boils down to, though, is something all too depressingly familiar — people who are being racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. apologizing not because they recognize that what they said or did was wrong, but because it caused some public uproar.  Reading through his apologetic tweets, it becomes clear that Simmons feels pretty put-upon.  Russell Simmons, YOU are not the injured party here.

And yet he says things like “I guess I have a sensitivity chip missing” and “Sorry if people r hurt.”  Or my favorite, “I thought it was politically correct.”  This last statement is intriguing.  I assume that this means that he thought it was okay because the fictional Tubman uses the tape to blackmail the slaveowner, thus sort of “winning” over him? And I guess, if you just looked at it on that surface level, you might think it was okay.  Except for all the ways that it really isn’t.

Rape jokes are not funny, especially when told in the context of a history filled with the sexual abuse of African-American women.  Although the video does not portray the relationship as a “rape,” given the owner/slave relationship, how consensual could any sexual relationship between the two be?  Furthermore, if you take 30 seconds to google her life story, you’ll learn that Tubman was repeatedly beaten — once so hard that she may have developed epilepsy from it.  You can also read about how her family was repeatedly split up and sold to different owners, or how even though she married a freedman, their children were still legally slaves (slavery was counted on the mother’s side).  In this context, it’s really wrong to portray owner/slave sexual relationships as part of a joke. It’s wrong to take the trauma out of this situation and play it for laughs.

Harriet Tubman is a respected historical figure, and although historical figures can certainly be subjects for humor, this was done in a really inappropriate way.  Harriet Tubman made a difference using her mind — planning and leading escapes, lecturing on abolition, serving as a scout for the Union Army, or working for suffrage.  She did not make her historical contribution by using her vagina to manipulate men.  This contributes to long-held stereotypes about the sexual voracity of black women.  Not only is it harmful to perceptions of black women as a whole, I can’t help but assume that Tubman, a deeply religious Christian, would have really resented being portrayed that way. And then there’s the whole obesity thing — the video Tubman is portrayed as a larger woman, in line with popular “mammy” sterotypes.  I’m a big believer in fat acceptance, and I’m sure that enslaved people came in all shapes and sizes, but I think it’s highly unlikely that there were actually that many jolly and fat slaves — not given the workload, diet, and other abuses they faced. Tubman’s photographs don’t indicate she was fat — but it’s funnier that way, right Russell?

So the video’s been pulled, thanks in part to @FlemingPhD and the petition she started.  It’s down, Simmons has “apologized” — why even still write about this?  Because it shouldn’t be swept under the table.  Because we live in a rape culture, and jokes about nonconsensual sex are not okay. Because for very good reasons, African-American women often feel left out of mainstream feminism, and as a white woman, I want to be an ally to them wherever possible.  Because, as some very awesome people are tweeting, #BlackPowerIsForBlackMen and far too often #solidarityisforwhitewomen.

And with that in mind, I don’t want to hijack the narrative****, so I’m going to sit back and listen:

Via Shakesville, some twitter accounts I’m going to start following:  @NanticokeNDN @mychalsmith, @NewBlackWoman, @carolynedgar, @Blackamazon, and @OHTheMaryD.

Clutch Magazine

Necole Bitchie

Urban Expressive

I imagine there’ll be more in the days to come.  I hope so, at least.


*Don’t know much about her?  Check out her Wikipedia page.  Or better yet, read an actual piece of scholarship, like Jean Humez’s Harriet Tubman: The Life and Life Stories (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004).

** To be clear, this isn’t part of Comedy Central’s Drunk History Show — it’s a separate but similar project that was meant to air on Simmons’ All Def Digital YouTube channel.

***No, I’m not going to link to the video or the YouTube channel — I don’t want to give them any hits, and if you’re truly curious, it isn’t hard to find.  You are on the Internet, you know.

****I’m doing my best to be a good ally here, but if you feel that I’ve written something inappropriate, please let me know — I can’t get better if I don’t know what to correct.


2 thoughts on “In defense of a fellow Harriet, or, Russell Simmons, what is wrong with you?

  1. Dear Pseudo-Harriet,

    I am so pleased that you have started this blog, and I look forward to following it. (I don’t want to out you by corresponding under my real name; since opsimath means one who acquires learning late in life, think about who you know who fits that description).

    I also very much like this entry, and I wanted to suggest two other possible sources for you to follow.

    One an online publication called The Root. It’s an offshoot of the Washington Post (oh, dear, I hope they keep it going under Jeff Bezos–I just thought of that!), staffed by African-American journalists; the editor-in-chief is Henry Louis Gates. I’ve learned an awful lot from it, and found other sources through it.

    The second is an amazing writer for the Atlantic named Ta-Nehisi Coates. I won’t even attempt to describe his entries, but they are without exception fascinating.
    (He has a twitter feed as well, but Twitter hasn’t really clicked for me yet, so I don’t know what it is.)

    I hope you will keep this up!


  2. Thanks for the links Opsimath! I didn’t have Ta-Nehisi Coates down, because he hadn’t weighed in on the video, although he has written about Tubman before, just as powerfully and beautifully as he writes about everything else.

    I also wanted to add that Janell Hobson said most of what I wanted to, but more eloquently, and with more cultural authority, in a post at the Ms. Magazine Blog which got cross-posted to Racialicious: or

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