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.
Black Muslims including malcolm x ,black panthers even early dr king had to listen to slaves like you. Just read the news
— Russell Simmons (@UncleRUSH) July 30, 2013
A mere fortnight later, one of the first videos from Simmons’s new “All Def Digital” YouTube channel hits the web:
— All Def Digital (@AllDefDigital) August 14, 2013
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.
Again #blackpowerisforblackmen bc we don't joke about lynching but the sexual terrorism black women faced historically is used for laughs
— Kimberly N. Foster (@KimberlyNFoster) August 15, 2013
#BlackPowerisforBlackmen because addressing intraracial misogyny and patriarchy means betraying your race.
— clarke (@radicalhearts) August 14, 2013
#blackpowerisforblackmen because many people saw getting a Black man on the Supreme Court was bigger than what he may have done to A.Hill
— Jamilah Lemieux (@JamilahLemieux) August 14, 2013
As a Black woman I am supposed to put my Blackness first & ignore my gender while upholding the Black patriarchy #blackpowerisforblackmen
— Bougie Black Girl (@BougieBlackGurl) August 13, 2013
— James Bone (@James2tha) August 15, 2013
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.
Tell me we don’t need a conversation about the intersectional burdens faced by Black women when a 55-year-old political influencer, philanthropist and cultural architect can say that parodying Harriet Tubman (HARRIET TUBMAN) with a sex tape skit is “the funniest thing” he’s ever seen. Explain to me how there isn’t some sort of hurtful disconnect among our ranks when a woman vents about street harassment and is told that she’s colluding with White men to bring her own race down.
Simmons’ folks took the video down last night after massive (and predictable) outrage across social media. He issued an apology some time later, saying this in his defense: “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 with Harriet Tubman outwitting the slave master? I thought it was politically correct.”
He thought that a parody of a large Harriet Tubman riding atop a White slave master (I wish I had enough words to get into the subtext here about the sexuality of Black women who don’t look like the "exotic" model types he has a penchant for) was “politically correct.” Why? Because she wasn’t getting hit with closed fists or having her hair ripped out or crying? Also, perhaps Simmons is unclear on what “politically correct” means?
Do any of you think that he would have green-lit a parody video that found young Frederick Douglass giggling as he was mounted by a White man—you don’t think that only Black women were subjected to the indignities of slave rape, do you? Maybe if we spend a bit more time thinking about the men who were assaulted, some of these brothers might actually have a bit more compassion. Or not. Probably not. My vote is for "not."
Much like Riley Cooper’s “n*gger” outburst a few weeks ago, that “bed wench” comment was not just for the target of that man’s ire. Jamilah isn’t the “bed wench,” Black women by-and-large are “bed wenches” in the eyes of someone who needs but a hair trigger to drop such a slur. And while Simmons may self-identify as someone who is pro-woman and activist-minded—and many times, he is—his inclination to call that video “the funniest thing” he’s ever seen and to fail to recognize how horrifyingly offensive it is to Black women as a whole, and our revolutionary ancestor Harriet Tubman in particular, speaks another story.
As word of the Def Digital video made its way across Twitter last night, quite a few people made a point of mentioning the irony or significance of it being released on the heels of #blackpowerisforblackmen. Being "right" during a game of Charades or while watching Jeopardy is fun. Being "right" when fighting to get the men of your own race—and many of the women, too!—to acknowledge existence of Black women’s unique intersectional burdens is not. And for many, this episode will easily be waved away with “He took it down and apologized…what else do you want?" In fact, there were some who were so quick to accept their apology, they seemed to question their own right to be angry in the first place. @UncleRUSH was able to RT a few gems of support:
I was ready to be all mad black woman-ish on @UncleRUSH for this Harriet Tubman video but an immediate reaction is not always called for
— TM (@TMisschelle) August 15, 2013
Just as this video does NOT give White racism a pass under the failed "How can they respect us when we don't respect ourselves?" trope some of our cousins try and pull out on these occasions, the failure of some women to understand or recognize this video as blatant sexism and feel justified in having a "mad Black woman" response (for the record, I rolled my neck and punctuated every word I typed with a clap while working on this piece) means one thing for sure: there is so much work left to do. And considering that Black women are the mules of the world, as Zora Neale Hurston famously wrote, the work will tragically continue to fall upon our backs. It's time to follow sister Harriet's lead and be less forgiving of those who refuse to walk the road to freedom, regardless of their gender.
Jamilah Lemieux is the News and Lifestyle Editor for EBONY.com.