By Guest Contributor Janell Hobson; originally published at Ms. Magazine blog
This year marked the 100th anniversary of the passing of Harriet Tubman. I had the opportunity to celebrate that fact when organizing a special symposium back in March, resulting in some thought-provoking critical papers on her legacy of resistance, which I’m currently guest-editing for Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism.
One of the more interesting conversations that came out of this event questioned why, on the anniversary of her death, we have yet to experience an epic cinematic treatment of her life. She certainly qualified for that great Hollywood biopic. Against all odds, as a disabled enslaved woman, she escaped to freedom–having learned of the Underground Railroad network that included support from black and white allies–and once she made it to the other side returned to slavery 17 more times to free countless other slaves.
Tubman used all sorts of wit and trickery to enable her dangerous journey in this secretive network, and even believed in her divine right and power to engage in liberation. She collaborated with John Brown on the raid at Harper’s Ferry, recruiting slaves for the project, but her illness at the time prevented her from taking part in the uprising. During the Civil War, she served as a Union army spy, nurse and soldier, and in 1863, she led a successful military campaign on Combahee River in South Carolina, resulting in the liberation of 750 slaves.
In short, she’s the stuff of legend–for black history, women’s history, American history. The fictional Django from Django Unchained ain’t got nothing on her!
But on the year of her centennial anniversary, what does Tubman get instead of the great Hollywood biopic? She gets a “sex tape.”
You read that correctly. Recently, in an internet launch of his new YouTube channel, All Def Digital, rap media mogul Russell Simmons featured a failed comedic video titled Harriet Tubman Sex Tape–the first in the line-up of this new series. It didn’t take long for black audiences on social media to utterly denounce this video and petition against it. Within 24 hours, Simmons removed the video from his channel and issued this apology:
My first impression of the Harriet Tubman piece was that it was about what one of the 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. Silly me. I can now understand why so many people are upset.
It is amazing that Simmons could not have predicted the outrage upon seeing such a video–which infers that, in order to build an Underground Railroad network to free the slaves, Tubman basically used blackmail against her white slaveowner by conniving with a fellow male slave to create a “sex tape” of their sexual encounter that she could later use as “leverage.” Then again, this is what porn culture will do to one’s perspective–something Simmons has perpetuated in his decades-long involvement with sexist rap music and culture.
Just reading the video’s premise was enough to make my blood boil, but sometimes, especially when you do media analysis as part of your scholarship, you just have to be a witness. So I viewed the video, and I don’t believe I am exaggerating when I say that, on this centennial anniversary, Harriet Tubman got raped.
Most of Tubman’s biographers have argued that there is no documentation that Tubman experienced sexual abuse while enslaved. She was definitely physically abused–routinely beaten, and at one point as an adolescent suffered a head injury caused by an overseer who threw a two-pound weight against her head, breaking her skull and nearly killing her. The injury impacted her throughout her 91 years of life, as she was often given to sleeping spells (which Tubman claimed brought on various dreams and prophetic visions).
Slavery was “hell,” Tubman described in her narrative, dictated to Sarah Bradford since she could neither read nor write. She experienced a great deal of trauma while enslaved, but if there were any experiences with rape–which marked the experiences of far too many enslaved women–Tubman remained silent on the issue. It’s still also possible that, as hellish as her experience might have been, she was spared from a deeper hell that sexual violence brings to the picture. Which is why Simmons’ “sex tape” adds insult to injury.
It’s a hell of a sobering reality to realize that, 100 years after Tubman’s passing, our porn culture–intertwined inextricably with rape culture–would produce such a demeaning narrative about one of our great American heroes. It happened not because there is any basis in history for such an imagined scenario (Tubman simply would not engage in sexual leverage–it’s not part of the essence of who she was) but because our culture continues to trivialize rape (which is what we must categorize any unequal encounter between a slaveowner and slave, regardless of “consent”) and debase women’s experiences. Ironically, the horrendous truth about sex tapes is that they tend to be used as leverage not against men but against women! It is women who are often blackmailed or demeaned when sex tapes are made available on the Internet. Women are the ones who have everything to lose, considering the slut-shaming that still clings to female sexuality. Sure, some celebrities might parlay such “porn” videos into a career, but the intention of sex tapes is public humiliation.
The Harriet Tubman Sex Tape publicly humiliates one of our great icons, and if she–whom many believe is inviolable, sacred, untouchable–can be debased, then not one of us is safe.