One of the early memories that I have regarding television programming is the evening that a docudrama about Harriet Tubman was aired. It was the first time that I had the opportunity to see a black woman in the role of a shero.
The fact that a docudrama featuring a Black woman in the leading role was exceptional for the era especially since the imagery was entirely different than the negative stereotypes that were featured on the medium in its "Golden Years".
I remember sitting in our living room in front of our floor model black and white television set totally immersed in the story line about Harriet’s journey on the Underground Railroad as a conductor.
When the show ended my young mind totally embraced that story. I remember spending quite a considerable amount of time pretending to be Harriet and zipping around in our backyard leading enslaved people from out of slavery. I felt very powerful and comforted by the idea that there was a way out of bondage. It definitely generated a lot of buzz among my friends at school on Monday. We talked about Harriet's bravery in total awe of how she handled herself during that era.
That program aired during the era of time when the daily news was all about the struggle for Civil Rights. All of the leadership featured on the news was males. Watching Harriet Tubman’s story was an empowering moment for me personally because she was a woman of color who had the capability to make positive change in the lives of our people.
So when I read an article that gave details about an apology issued by Russell Simmons for a video parody that featured Harriet Tubman secretly taping a slave master having sex with her to post on You Tube as a form of blackmail, I was totally outraged by the idea.
While the video attempts to give Harriet modern day attitude coupled with technology as a tool to fight enslavement I could not find the humor in the idea.
One of the advantages of knowing Our Story is the realities that women and girls faced in different eras of time. The type of violence that occurred to enslaved women is not a laughing matter. The idea that Harriet was willing to sacrifice her body in a sexual act in order to blackmail the master does a grave injustice to the reality that enslaved black women actually dealt with. Rape was not an uncommon occurrence on plantations. Women and girls were often subjected to physical violence as well.
I get it that the skit was meant to be a contemporary comedic twist. But there is also the Jezebel stereotype in that twisted narrative that makes me wanna holla—stop this manner of disrespect immediately!
Russell Simmons has removed the video from his All Def Digital You Tube Channel but there are still copies of the video available for viewing on You Tube. There are also a lot of black people who have stood up in defense of the skit because they see no harm in the content. That in itself is a problem because it forwards the idea that black women have no sense of morals and that our bodies are not held sacred by us. Harriet Tubman’s image as a shero is reduced to being the stereotypical Jezebel who leads an “upright” white male into a sexual situation.
However Simmons is not the only one who should issue an apology for the video. The writers of the skit should also issue an apology to black women for failing to consider the message that they were sending in the content. Because Russell is not the only individual who needs to get it about creating messages that not only negate the truth about Harriet Tubman but also reinforce the Jezebel image of black women.
What disturbs me even more is the fact that there is another similar video that has been on You Tube for three years and has managed to be under the radar until this incident occurred. This video is from Second City TV. It not only features Harriet as a light skinned sista gurl type of woman and a master who sings her love songs. Ugh! I read some of the comments about the content and found to my personal dismay that there were a lot of black folks who also co-signed the content as good to go because it made them laugh.
There will be people who will defend Simmons first amendment rights and will try to declare that we need to stop being so sensitive about our image and the message that is generated from negative material.
But if we do not stand up and speak out not solely to shame but also to educate people on why we were offended, who will do so on our behalf?
Harriet Tubman has living descendants who have demanded an apology from Russell Simmons. I believe that this is in order since the video was totally disrespectful to her legacy.