'Harriet Tubman Sex Tape': Rape Is No Joke

The video promotes the false notion of slave sexual heroism instead of calling it what it is.

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A scene from the "Harriet Tubman Sex Tape" (YouTube)

(The Root) -- Just typing out the words seems like a betrayal: "Harriet Tubman Sex Tape." It's as bizarre and brutal as a sudden slap in the face. A spoof about a real-life American superhero voluntarily reducing herself to the antics of every other reality-show airhead? And someone thought this was "hilarious"?

That someone happened to be hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, whose newly launched YouTube channel, All Def Digital, released the three-minute spoof entitled "Harriet Tubman Sex Tape" on Wednesday. After a tidal wave of Twitter backlash, including a change.org petition, ADD removed the sketch and Simmons issued a hasty apology on his other digital property, Global Grind.

"I'm a very liberal person with thick skin," wrote Simmons. "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."

The video's concept is too dumb to describe, but I'll try. In it Tubman (played by actress Shanna Malcolm) conspires with a fellow slave (played by actor DeStorm Power) to blackmail her white slave master (played by actor Jason Horton) with a video of their "special time together," otherwise known by its more historically accurate term: "rape."

No one with cognitive ability watched this video and thought to laugh. It was a base attempt at humor in a situation in which there is none. Race, class and sex are always bumbling bedfellows. So why even attempt to tickle such a monstrously complex subject with a wink and a nod? 

In 2008, after my great-grandmother passed away one month before president Barack Obama would take office, my grandmother told me about a disturbing call she'd received from her first cousin about our history. The cousin wanted to know about my great-great-grandfather, who we know was a white man, a descendant most likely of the very people who owned previous generations of our family.

My grandmother immediately became incensed by the mere mention of this man's name. She was especially troubled by the romanticized logic my cousin presented in her defense: "You just can't help who you love," she reasoned.

"That wasn't love," my stone-faced grandmother explained to me later. "That was survival."

 

We absolutely need to have a more nuanced discussion about black women, power, history and context. Approaching 90 years old, my grandmother isn't ready for it. She's too hurt by it. But I would hope that some of us -- namely Simmons and everyone else involved in the conceptualizing, writing, shooting, acting, editing and promotion of the "Harriet Tubman Sex Tape" -- would be better at this conversation by now.