Russell Simmons, Harriett Tubman and the history of myopia
Every time I hear the voice of Russell Simmons, I hear a cool, clean, clear meditative voice, especially on Twitter where he drops his yoga knowledge in a reflective way. I guess he wasn’t folding his legs and saying a centered “Om” when he decided to ridicule an African woman.
How did his voice distort itself to decide that he would post a YouTube video on a space where everybody could watch “Harriet Tubman” in a sexual context? How could he, this forward-focused man, decide to demean an emancipation heroine?
Tubman is credited for freeing more than 400 enslaved people. She is credited for pulling a gun on some who ambivalently embarked on the Underground Railroad, then wanted to turn back to “massa.”
It’s complicated, but no matter how complicated it was, the depiction of Tubman as a sex object is not only disparaging to a freedom fighter but to every Black woman who stands on her shoulders.
Nearly 20 years ago, Professor Anita Hill stared down a Senate committee and spoke of the sexual harassment she experienced from now “Justice” Clarence Thomas. The judiciary committee dismissed her claims as “erotomania.” Interestingly, others who had similar claims were not allowed to testify. Despite the best legal representation out there, Hill was excoriated in the media.
From my perspective, her best statement was “they don’t know me” in response to those who used minutia to claim special knowledge of her life and daily living.
When you don’t know someone, it is easy and lazy to reduce them into stereotypes. Does Russell Simmons know Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Anna Julia Cooper, Sadie T.M. Alexander or Mary McLeod Bethune? Does he know Coretta Scott King, Myrlie Evers, Betty Shabazz, C. Delores Tucker? Or any other African American woman who has dedicated her life to freedom and justice of her people? Does he know us or does he simply see us as the fodder of parodies?
The Simmons drama is especially offensive because when we have African American people lifted up, the lifting is mostly about men. Still, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would not have made it without the enthusiasm of Coretta Scott King.
Tubman saved hundreds of enslaved people; yet, her name is rarely lifted when we speak of emancipation. African American women’s role in our history is neither admired nor appreciated. When Black men call the roll, Black women are given no credence, unless it is an afterthought.
Simmons, if you just picked up a history book, you’d find African American women who have made a major difference in our lives and in our movement. Do you know Ella Baker, the stalwart sister who stood beside and behind Dr. King organizing the Civil Rights Movement? Do you know Professor Joyce Ladner who before being an academic was a tireless civil rights worker? Do you know Alice Walker or Congresswomen Eleanor Holmes Norton, Maxine Waters, Yvette Clarke or Donna Edwards? The work these women have done and continue to do is possible because they stand on the shoulders of Tubman and other ancestors.
Your apology doesn’t address the mindset that allowed this parody in the first place, the dozens of editors, producers and assistants who saw nothing wrong with this, and the many Simmons “fans” who laughed at the depiction of a historical figure like Tubman as a sexual object who used her vagina for “freedom.” It is as if you are laughing at every Black woman who was enslaved and had no choice when massa decided to rape her repeatedly. It is as if you do not recognize the painful history of every Black woman who was raped, not only during slavery, but thereafter, when the goal was to keep Black men “in line” by violating Black women. It is as if you put myopic blinders around your eyes and chose to ignore history and its resultant pain. Can you imagine the violation of a child (which often happened), a violation so intense that baby girls who dreamed of being mothers were told they could not have children?
Simmons, once upon a time, you were the ambassador of a generation. Even now, people are mesmerized by your gentle manner, your quest for peace and spirituality, and your practice of yoga and Pilates. Wrap your spirituality around your video and tell us where the two intersect. How could you? Why would you? How dare you?
When you diminish our legacy for entertainment purposes, “pulling” the video is not enough. You need to work at eliminating a mindset that makes you and others think the denigration of African American women is okay.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and author.