Russell, You Let Harriet Tubman Down

Russell, You Let Harriet Tubman Down

After an unspeakably offensive video parodies Tubman, Jamilah Lemieux says #Blackpowerforblackmen has been painfully validated yet again

Jamilah Lemieux

by Jamilah Lemieux, August 15, 2013

Russell, You Let Harriet Tubman Down

NOTE: to the sister who played Harriet...do know that this conversation isn't over yet...

The most famed "conductor" of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman is said to have worked to free no less than 300 enslaved Africans from bondage. Tubman is also known for the quote: “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if they knew they were slaves.”

Nearly three weeks ago, CNN anchor Don Lemon drew the ire of Black people across the country with his “No Talking Points” rant that presented five comical "solutions" to enable Black people to end racism. One of the newsman’s loudest detractors was hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, who roundly dismissed Lemon’s commentary via a series of Tweets and an open letter.



A mere fortnight later, one of the first videos from Simmons’s new “All Def Digital” YouTube channel hits the web:



Harriet Tubman. Sex tape. Comedy skit. It’s as if all the words in the world were pooled for a terrible dangerous game of Mad Libs.

Let’s step back a day. Following a powerful discussion that took place on Twitter after writer Mikki Kendall started the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen—a critical response to the marginalization of women of color by White feminists— I ended up starting a trending topic aimed at intra-racial sexism and men who can talk a good game when it comes to race, but are incapable to see the oppressive and harmful impact of patriarchy on Black women: #blackpowerisforblackmen.



Unsurprisingly, there were some men who disagreed and felt empowered to say some truly horrid things in their rebuttals. The worst, perhaps, of all the men who disavowed the existence of the sexism that I can touch, taste and feel daily came from a man who called me a “bed wench”—a reference that harkens back to chattel slavery and the sexual assault of Black women at the hands of White men. A contemporary “bed wench,” as this man suggested, is a Black woman who is literally and/or figuratively "in bed" with "the White man," and thus working proactively to hurt the lives of the Black one. I will not point to the man who coined this phrase, nor his website, but will only say that his work is wrought with the sort of unabashed loathing of Black women that puts Rush Limbaugh at half-mast—and it's couched between Pan-Africanist/Nationalist teachings and rhetoric.

Now let’s go back a few years. Writer cum pundit Touré got himself in a bit of hot water in what was still the developing stages of Black Twitter, after tweeting (in his own words) "poorly expressed bizzare ideas" about enslaved women bartering sex (“that good good,” he called it) for special privileges and access on the plantation (and then made matters worse by claiming his "cousin" did it… and then he confessed).

Russell Simmons, He Who Shall Not Be Named and Touré have consistently described great concern for the conditions of Black people, yet have troubling attitudes about just what sex between enslaved African women and White men (“rape,” if you wanna get technical) would look like. Simmons and HWSNBN took it a step further than simply having an odd curiosity/lack of understanding about what the plantation sexual power struggle looked like. One found the sexuality of a formerly enslaved woman—a famed revolutionary one, at that—to be fodder for a joke, while the other suggested that there was something wrong with women who were forced to have sex with White men, while the other is so absolutely convinced that the truth of plantation sex is really some sort of anti-Black male warfare. 

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