This is how I see her:
as our “Maternal Blessed Mother”
The Power of Change (Or Life After the Release of the Sex Tape & the Open Letter)
©2013 by Karsonya Wise Whitehead
It has been over 150 years since Harriet Tubman helped to lead her family and friends to freedom. Her legacy and her name have been remembered and have been taught to every generation since that time. She is a part of the American culture, as her work and her contributions during the period of American enslavement, the Civil War and the Women’s Movement, stretch beyond the African American community. She helped to make our country a better place and for that we should be eternally grateful. When people like Russell Simmons seek to change and tarnish the memory of our American heroes, those of us who are conscious and who are active must speak up and lean into the space in an effort to bring about change.
On August 19, 2013, Judith G. Bryant, the great great grandniece of Harriet Tubman, reached out to me to share her concerns about Russell Simmons’s decision to release the sex tape video and his subsequent “apology.” We shared both our mutual feelings of disgust, anger, and sadness and concern that this false information has now become a part of our public consciousness and is forever linked to the life and times of Harriet Tubman. We exchanged materials: I sent her a link to my blog post about Harriet Tubman and she forwarded me a copy of her letter to share with others. With her permission, I posted the Open Letter on my website and it has since gone viral: http://www.academia.edu/4273201/An_Open_Letter_to_Russell_Simmons_from_Harriet_Tubmans_Great_Great_Grandniece.
My hope is that by speaking up, people will recognize that silence is never the answer and that change, if you push hard enough, will eventually come.
It takes a lot for me to be surprised by what people say and do, as I usually expect the best from people and am disappointed (but not surprised) when I do not receive it. I pride myself on being a fair person who gives people the benefit of the doubt. I try to see people for who they are and I do my best to accept them despite their obvious faults and flaws. At the same time, in this age of technology and reality television, I know that people will do and say just about anything for money and fame. Even though I do not agree with the way the world is moving, I do accept that it is moving and that I need to make decisions about how much I want to move with it. I am a realist and somewhat of a pragmatist having grown up between Washington, DC, where I was surrounded by forward thinking black people, and South Carolina, where I visited stores that still had their “For Colored Only” signs taped to the wall. As a historian who studies black women’s history and as a Christian who has read the Holy Bible more than once, I feel that I have read so much material (on topics that range from rape to slavery, incest and war, physical abuse and domestic violence) that my heart is almost hardened to the realities of this world.
And yet, I found myself surprised, shocked, and hurt by Russell Simmons’s recent Internet release of a Harriet Tubman sex video: http://www.wwtdd.com/2013/08/the-harriet-tubman-sex-tape-was-a-huge-success-video/. As I sat there, watching this distasteful clip, tears were rolling down my face as the young actress portraying Harriet Tubman began to seduce her plantation owner and joke about how she much she enjoyed their secret times together. I was (and still am) angry at Russell Simmons and people like him who are willing to do anything for money. I felt sorry for the actress and the other actors who agreed to be a part of this project and I believe that they also should be ashamed, shamed, and embarrassed.
As I sat there, shaking my head, I realized that in this age of technology, no matter how much you sacrifice to make the world better you can still end up as a star in someone else’s sex tape. I have never been a Russell Simmons fan but after watching the video, I spent countless hours trying to find out more about him as I needed to understand what would compel a sane person to support, fund, and promote this type of work. I realized that Simmons, like most people in America, either does not know his history or does not value it–because at some point, your life should be about more than wanting to make money (though he seems to do that very well), it should be about making the decision in your spirit that there are some things that you will never do just to make money.
He is not the first person to cross that line and create a permanent record that moves our people and the struggle in the opposite direction and sadly, we know that he will not be the last. I take comfort in the fact that even though people will continue to cross the line, there is a community of people who will actively speak out against it. They will push back and though we will never get back to where we use to be (because this video of Harriet Tubman was published online, it is now a part of our permanent records), we can make people aware of where we stand on these issues in an effort to avoid it from happening again. Harriet Tubman is a legend. She is a shero. She is one of our maternal mothers. And therefore, she should be untouchable.
II. Harriet Tubman, My Childhood Myths and Legends
I remember the first time I pretended to be Harriet Tubman. I was eight years old and I was on my way to water to think. I use to spend every summer on my paternal grandmother’s farm in Lexington, South Carolina. Marie “Reds” Anderson, my dear sweet grandmother, was a big brown woman with a face full of freckles and moles and a head full of blazing dusty red hair. She used to go fishing every day in her lake that sat at the end of the woods on her property. She probably had somewhere between 15-20 acres of land, most of it was woods. She had a path through the woods where she used to make us walk down to the water and sit whenever we got in trouble. It always felt like we walking our last mile. She would stand at the entrance to the woods and would watch us as we walked down to the lake. I remember this because I used to get in trouble quite a bit as a young girl. She would tell me to go and sit by the water and think about everything I had done so that I could figure out a way to “be better.” She would say, “I’m gonna watch you all the way to the water and just because you can’t see me doesn’t mean that I won’t see you.” I use to walk through the woods pretending to be Harriet Tubman leading my people to freedom. I would pick up a stick and put it in my waist band and pull it out like a gun when the runaway slaves would talk about going back to Egypt. I would duck down in the trees and tell everybody to quiet down so I could hear the dogs and come up with a plan to hide from them. I used to look up and pretend to see the North Star or touch the sides of the trees feeling around for moss. When I got down to the lake, I would pretend that we were in the Promised Land and I would get down on my knees and kiss the ground. I would shout, “You all are free now, ain’t nobody gon make you do anything that you don’t wanna do, no mo’.” I would do a little dance and sing, “I looked at my hands and my hands looked new and I looked at my feet and my feet did too.” I would sit by the water and think about Harriet Tubman, the Moses of my people. A black woman who put her body on the line over and over again to lead people to freedom. I always thought that she was more courageous than Moses of the Holy Bible, particularly since he told God more than once that he did not want to go and she went willingly over and over again. I admired her for her courage and loved her for her fierce feminist spirit. My grandmother was a fierce feminist who taught me how to fish, shoot pigs, garden, climb trees, fight my male cousins, and paint. She would tell me that Anderson women never lose because they were born fighters and winners. When she took me fishing, she used to make me walk to the lake with my eyes closed so that I would know how to get there and get back to the house on my own. She said that the only thing worse then being lost on your land was not knowing who you were and what you were capable of doing.
Reds could have easily been a Moses. She was probably the first person who ever talked about Harriet as if she was a woman and not just a mythical being. When I learned about Harriet in school, my teachers never talked about her as a woman or as a wife. They never mentioned her childhood and what it must have been like growing up on a plantation as a young girl. They did not spend much time talking about her life with her first husband, a free man who coupled with an enslaved woman and chose to live with her on a plantation or her second husband, a young veteran she married after the Civil War. I never thought about how much courage it took for her, as a young woman, to make the decision to leave her family, her friends, and her husband in search of this thing called freedom. Harriet Tubman ran away by herself to a place that she had only heard about but had never seen. I never understood that she was disabled. I knew that she had been hit in the head by a piece of iron but it never dawned on me until my Reds pointed out that Harriet was a woman who probably suffered from intense headaches and would often fall asleep at a moment’s notice. And yet, despite all of the odds facing her, she chose to run towards something that, in her mind, had to better than what she had. She embodied courage and hope and freedom. She had grit, that elusive hard to define quality that separates women like Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer and Shirley Chisholm and grandma Reds from the rest of us.
I have always wanted to be Harriet Tubman. I wanted to be the type of person that would always choose to go back and help other people to be free. I did not want to be Frederick Douglass because he only saved himself and I did not want to be Henry “Box” Brown because he only mailed himself. I did not want to be Ellen and William Craft because they only saved themselves. I did not even want to be Moses from the Old Testament because he made only one trip and he did it reluctantly. I wanted to be Harriet, a modern-day Moses leading my people to the Promised Land over and over again. I wanted my name to be whispered and remembered like hers. I wanted to be immortal because when your name and your story is remembered than you are never really gone. I used to walk through the woods on the way to the water singing “Steal Away” or “Go Down Moses” or “Wade in the Water” at the top of my lungs. I was Moses and I was on my way to freedom and I was not looking back.
III. Going Down as Moses to Tell Old Russell to Let My Sister Go!
I thought about all of that when I watched Russell Simmons’s Harriet Tubman video. I thought about it when I got sick to my stomach, when I deleted it, and when I took a shower because I felt dirty after watching it. I do not know Russell Simmons but I do know that anyone who would produce this work and laugh about it is someone who is enslaved and needs to be saved (even if it is only from themselves). Harriet Tubman could have freed a lot more people if they had known they were enslaved and my job today is to make sure that those who are enslaved are told about it and given a chance to be free.
Harriet Tubman photo: http://www.mchenrycountyturningpoint.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/harriet-tubman.jpg