By Julianne Malveaux
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 You-Tube video on a space where everybody could watch a so-called parody of “Harriet Tubman” having sex with her White slave master with the intent of filming it and blackmailing him? How could he, this forward-focused man, decide to demean an emancipation heroine? Choose to demean her by making her a sexual object? Even as he took the offensive tape off his website, please tell me, somebody, what Simmons was thinking? (In my first draft of this column, I called this man a “brother,” but really I mean the brother from another mindset.)
Harriet Tubman is credited for freeing more than 400 enslaved people. She is credited for pulling a gun on some who ambivantly embarked on the Under Ground Railroad, then wanted to turn back to massa. It’s complicated, but no matter how complicated it was, the depiction of Harriet Tubman 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 Associate “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 African American women it is easy and lazy to reduce us into stereotypes. Does Russell Simmons know Harriett Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Anna Julia Cooper, Sadie TM Alexander, and Mary McLeod Bethune? Does he know Coretta Scott King, Myrlie Evers, Betty Shabazz, C. Delores Tucker. Does he know us, or does he simply see us as the fodder for 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.
Harriett 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 our brothers call the roll, she is given no credence, unless it is an afterthought. Brother 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.
Russell, do you know Ella Baker, the stalwart sister who stood beside and behind Dr. King and others to do organizing work? Do you know Professor Joyce Lander who before being an academic was a tireless civil rights worker? Do you know Alice Walker, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, Maxine Waters.? Or a bit younger, do you know Congresswomen Yvette Clark, or Donna Edwards? The work these women have done and continue to do is possible because they stand on the shoulders of Harriett Tubman and our 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 such as Harriet 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 blinder around your eyes, and chose to ignore history and its resultant pain. Can you imagine (often happened) the violation of a child, a violation so intense that baby girls who dreamed of being mothers were told they could not have children?
Russell 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 that the denigration of African American women is okay.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.