Tag Archives: controversy

The Rape of Harriet Tubman

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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.

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Deen’s empire goes down like Dixie, and Black Twitter does race and comedy right

Paula Deen apology Pt. 2: In which I am offended by the poor stagecraft and messaging of what has to be the worst PR counsel known to humankind.

Paula Deen apology, Pt. 2: In which a nation is offended by poor stagecraft and messaging from what has to be the worst PR counsel known to humankind.

So, for those of you not paying attention to the implosion of Southern cooking doyenne Paula Deen’s empire, here’s a timeline of the week an angry public drove Old Dixie down. (Don’t you love a good Confederacy carol?):

  • In 2012, Lisa Jackson, a white woman, files suit against Deen, her brother Earl “Bubba” Hiers and their various enterprises. The former employee of Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House, part of the Deen family of businesses and operated by Hiers, alleges routine assault and gender and racial discrimination within the workplace. According to Talking Points Memo:

The complaint alleged “racially discriminatory attitudes pervade” Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House where Jackson claimed African-American employees were required to use separate bathrooms and entrances from white staffers. Jackson also said African-Americans were held to “different, more stringent, standards” than whites at the restaurant and that Hiers regularly made offensive racial remarks.

Jackson also says that Hiers exposed employees to pornography and that women were routinely denigrated. Deen herself, when giving Jackson a promotion, is alleged to have been loathe to “give a woman a man’s job.”

  • In May 2013, as part of proceedings, Paula Deen was deposed. The National Enquirer broke the story that the recently filed videotaped deposition included damning content. The deposition was made public last week. Revelations included:
    • When asked if she had ever used the word “nigger,” Deen replied, “Yes, of course.” She admitted to using the word in reaction to an armed robbery by a black man in the 1980s and probably more recently when recounting conversations between black people or when telling jokes.
    • Deen thinks that racial slurs in the workplace are okay if part of one’s “sense of humor.” She proclaimed that “Most — most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks. Most jokes target — I don’t know. I didn’t make up the jokes, I don’t know. They usually target, though, a group. Gays or straights, black, redneck, you know, I just don’t know — I just don’t know what to say. I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.”
    • She also opined on the elegance of a traditional “before the Civil War” Southern wedding with only middle-aged black men and women as servers. Deen hoped to stage a similar wedding for her brother, but didn’t because, she said, the media wouldn’t understand.
  • In response to public backlash, Deen scheduled and then canceled an interview with Matt Lauer on “The Today Show.” Instead, she issues two, po-faced, half-assed apologies that demonstrate little understanding of what she did wrong. (The appearance has been rescheduled for Wednesday.)

 

  • The Food Network sticks a fork in Deen’s show, allowing her contract to expire at the end of the month. I am no network honcho, but I do know it is imprudent to have someone who has been publicly revealed as a racist and sexist, and who abets similar behaviors in the workplace, as a very high-profile face of your brand.
  • Paula Deen apologists descend on Facebook with cyber-torches, believing the celebrity chef is being demonized for “saying a bad word,” “being honest” and something, something, hip hop, something, something, Obama. They also line up to eat in her Georgia restaurants.
  • Meanwhile, African American employees of Deen’s businesses are coming forward with more allegations of mistreatment, so maybe this isn’t all about “bad words,” but, y’know, fucking workplace discrimination–what happens when people who think there are good uses of “the N word,” that women can’t be in positions of authority, and that the South was best in its antebellum days, have money and power.

And while all this was going on, Black Twitter (and friends) made my heart sing by marshaling its collective wit and sense of justice into putting Paula Deen on blast, most notably with #PaulasBestDishes, launched by the incomparable @BrokeyMcPoverty. (Joseph shared his favorites with y’all last week.)

 

And...

 

Najeemah, girl, you ain’t never lied!

Interestingly, at least one media outlet, Variety, called the hashtag “a showcase for racist jokes,” as if folks were fighting racism with, well, more racism. Now, I’ve written a lot about racism and sexism in comedy and about how criticism of comedy is often met with cries of “free speech,” “no topic is off limits,” “political correctness,” blah de blah. But…

The idea that the movement toward fewer “isms” in our speech and deeds is anathema; that “political correctness” is a blow against free speech; that the power structure has flipped; that the strictures of “political correctness” are everywhere, and that real bias barely exists anymore; has wormed its way into our social fabric, including entertainment. In comedy, that means that dusty racist, sexist, or homophobic tropes that are as old as time are positioned as refreshing and edgy.

#PaulasBestDishes wasn’t just typical cheerleading for the status quo masquerading as comedy. The hashtag unleashed comedy that was truly edgy in that it spoke truth to power. The target of the running gag was not the marginalized but the marginalizer. The message wasn’t “Black people sure are funny,” but that racism and racists are awful. It was laughing at a serious subject done right. And it was funny as hell.

To borrow a phrase from another celebrated chef, “Bam!”