Harriet Tubman: From Maternal Mother to Jezebel (Excerpt from “Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America” Apprentice House, 2015)
August 16, 2013
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.
I. On Russell Simmons, Moses, and the Push for Freedom
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.
Excerpt from “Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America” (Apprentice House, 2015) https://www.apprenticehouse.com/?product=letters-to-my-black-boys-raising-sons-in-a-post-racial-america
Harriet Tubman photo: http://www.mchenrycountyturningpoint.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/harriet-tubman.jpg