Harriet Tubman was not making headlines before Russell Simmons featured her in a steamy, fictional sex-tape on his All Def Digital YouTube channel — and then backed down with an apology. This is odd, because race and racism were definitely making headlines. Simmons sparred for weeks with CNN’s Don Lemon about his on-air criticism of black urban youth. Talking-heads couldn’t stop talking about the Trayvon Martin verdict. Yet in all these heated exchanges, nobody saw Harriet Tubman as relevant.
In fact, if anybody tried to bring up Harriet Tubman when talking about Trayvon Martin, they would be laughed off of CNN, MSNBC or Fox. In the race-relations boxing ring, Harriet Tubman is a punch below the belt. She is the guardian of the “let’s calm down” line. She holds a scepter that reads “let’s not get things out of proportion.” Tubman is synonymous with the vulgar “s-word” that cannot be uttered without catcalls of “it’s goin’ down!” — “slavery.”
Simmons’s skit, entitled “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape,” features Harriet Tubman hiding a slave in the closet of a (white) master’s house. The slave then witnesses and crudely records a rape scene between Harriet and the master. Afterwards, Harriet uses the recording-of-the-act to extort the master’s compliance. The skit has been widely condemned.
I can’t defend a skit like this and would never attempt to. But to its loudest, headline-grabbing critics, including Spike Lee and the NAACP, I must ask: What have you been doing to make Harriet Tubman relevant in 2013? Where were your headline-grabbing invocations of Harriet Tubman in the Trayvon Martin debate? Before your loud condemnation of this skit, did you give us a reason to talk about Harriet Tubman in relation to minimum wage, urban divestment or any other debate?
Silence is more vulgar than fiction. Forgetting history in current debates about policy and justice is worse than making-it-up. Does it take a fictional sex-tape to get a historical icon like Harriet Tubman animating our lips and fingertips? I checked my calendar and it’s not February, the neatly gated “Black History Month” where we celebrate a safe, disconnected past that romances our racial progress. How rare is it to see references to Harriet Tubman in August?
We pass on opportunities to connect the present with historical tragedy in every public dialog. Every issue, not just race, can invoke a matching historical tragedy.
Maybe a Harriet Tubman sex tape is a bad idea. But if historical tragedy needs to go the route of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian to get talked about as a current phenomenon in 2013, it’s better than never talking about it at all. If sex tapes are bad, silence is worse.
About the author:
Tay Zonday is a People’s Choice Award-nominated, YouTube Award-winning, Webby Award-winning singer-songwriter with more than 150 million video views on YouTube.