Sex Tapes and Slavery: Don't Wait Around For Russell Simmons to Teach You About Harriet Tubman

It's been nearly a week since Russell Simmons called his All Def Digital YouTube channel-produced "Harriet Tubman Sex Tape" the funniest thing he'd ever seen. I watched the clip, an "off-record account of how Harriet Tubman blackmailed her master into letting her run the Underground Railroad!" and saw "Tubman" seducing her slavemaster—including scenes of her (thankfully, fully clothed) anally penetrating him from behind before climbing on top of him to ride him into submission. 

Massa wouldn't give into Tubman's demands even though he was "whipped," in the sexual sense, but that conniving Harriet forced his hand thanks to a little blackmail via hidden camera. 

Hilarious, right? 

I was one of those folks who took to Twitter to demand that Simmons take the video down—his disrespect of the legacy of Tubman and making light of the rape of countless enslaved black women who had no power to say no turned my stomach. I'm only surprised the clip didn't feature Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" playing in the background with Massa singing to Tubman, "You're an animal," and "I know you want it…"

Despite Simmons' apology, I couldn't help but think that his actions are merely a symptom of our collective amnesia of the horror that was chattel slavery in America. And I can't stop thinking of something that happened while I was staying at my sister's house earlier this summer.

My sister lives out in the middle of nowhere. While jogging down the narrow country lanes around her house, I began to appreciate those stretches of road where the trees and brush have been replaced with vast fields of corn. Those quarter mile-long sections of road that still run wild unnerved me. Patches of dense green so thick that that the sun doesn't reach the earth, the rustle of unseen creatures moving through the undergrowth, and glimpses of undrained, terrifyingly-still swampland, made this city girl uneasy. I couldn't quite tamp down my fear while passing these patches of untamed land, so I’d run faster to get the moment over more quickly. 

And then night would fall. 

While sitting in my sister's backyard, bathed in nothing but blackness, a patch of dark trees behind her house transformed into a clump of menacing shadow. A bush took on the appearance of a cloaked specter—it all made me want to go inside and make friends with a little thing called electricity. My sister, who works in law enforcementa field where you see real-life, human horrors on a daily basisenjoys the darkness and the sound of frogs croaking in the night in a way I never will. 

When I'd jump over something I saw in the shadows out of the corner of my eye, she'd tease away my worries about wild animals or serial killers sneaking up on us in the dark. 

"Don’t go in the house, Bunny," she'd plead, using the pet name she's had for me since I was small. I'd relent and agree to keep sitting outside with her. And so my bravery—or rather, my not wanting to punk out—let me see the stars shimmering in the sky above her backyard in a way I never experience living in the heart of Los Angeles. 

Late one evening around 1 AM, she and I were sitting outside talking, her puffing casually on a cigarette, me looking nervously over my shoulder at the bushes--were those red eyes glowing in the distance? To distract myself I remarked on how extraordinarily bright the stars were. And I thought of someone who had no choice but to swallow any fear of the dark, of wild animals, of slipping into a swamp and being unable to get out.

"Isn't it amazing that these are the same stars Harriet Tubman saw as she was leading slaves to freedom?" I said. "The North Star's like the original GPS." 

Indeed, there were never any neatly paved roads for Tubman to follow, no voice coming from a machine to alert her that she may have taken a wrong turn, or that she would be arriving at her destination in 500 feet. Nothing but the North Star to guide her and the people she'd taken on as a sacred trust to deliver to freedom.

"Yeah, how DID she do that?" my sister asked. "Which one is the North Star, anyway?"

"OK, do you see the Big Dipper?" I replied.

"Which one is that? And how do you know this stuff?"

Nerd-time went into full effect as I showed my sister how to first find the Big Dipper, and then use that to locate the Little Dipper, which has the North Star at the tip of its handle. 

"What did she do if it was cloudy, or if it rained several days in a row, and she couldn't see the North Star?" I wondered. 

It's not like Tubman could chill at a hotel while waiting out a severe rainstorm. She had to keep moving because at any moment the slave catchers could be lurking alongside the crude paths and trails she followed. The realization made me feel all my privilege. Here I am, the descendant of slaves, with the luxury of being afraid of unseen, unknown things—rabbits and possums, most likelyhiding in a clump of bushes. Who was I to be afraid of the dark when a woman, who suffered spells because of being hit in the head at the age of 13 by the master of another slave, was able to lead hundreds through the dark into freedom?

Would Russell Simmons be able to find his way home using the North Star. Would I? 

We're a generation that's ridiculously disconnected from nature, and unless someone's passed you a book of slave narratives, like Bullwhip Days, you're probably ridiculously disconnected from what slavery was really like, too. When it comes to slavery, "never forget" is not in the lexicon. America has a vested interest in ensuring that we don't remember. 

Aiding the descendants of slaves, slave ownersand those who directly benefited from slavery and the long years of Jim Crow even if they did not own slaves themselves—in forgetting helps ensure that no 40 acres and a mule need ever be paid. It helps ensure that when descendants of slaves are told, why don't you just get over it and stop making excuses? they have no facts to back up what they know in their gut to be true. 

You probably got taught the "yeah, slavery was terrible but..." version of history. And that's if you got taught anything about it at all. I know I never read something like this in school:

If it were up to me, Bullwhip Days would be required reading in every American high school. If it were up to me, a copy of it would land in Russell Simmons' mailbox, with the section titled "Slave Auctions, Forced Breeding, Rape, and Runaways" bookmarked. 

We cannot assume that most Americans know that slavery was not some sanitized version of folks picking cotton and whistling while they worked. We cannot assume that most Americans know being a slave was not like laboring in one of Amazon's sweltering warehouses or working at Walmart, as hellish as both those experiences surely are. 

Many of us assumed Russell Simmons knew better, but being a black man, being a multimillionaire, doesn't automatically mean someone is aware. It doesn't make that person more likely to pick up a book of slave narratives so that they know the true history, the real pain. 

Now we know that many of the people Simmons works with don't know any better, either. After all, it's not just Simmons, but his whole team, who worked on the "sex tape." And if they did know better, they were too worried about their own paychecks and status to call bullshit on the whole idea.

As for Simmons, on Saturday he tweeted:

Will something worthy of Tubman's legacy come out of this? That remains to be seen. But let us all take it upon ourselves to ensure that we each independently investigate the truth of Tubman's life. Let's not rely on Russell Simmons to teach us about Tubman or her fearless triumph over true evil.


Val said…
And, it doesn't help that there are forces at work trying to change public school text books to make the enslavement of African Americans seem even more innocuous.
Liz Dwyer said…
EXACTLY! And it's up to us to make sure the truth endures even if the people in power manage to erase it from the official textbooks. (Let's hope they don't succeed tho because good grief, THE WORST!)

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