“This,” said Russell Simmons, “is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.” He was referring to a video called the “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape,” which was published on his Global Grind site, and was an allegedly comedic depiction of the antebellum heroine who led some 300 slaves to freedom subjecting herself to sex with her white master while another slave videotaped proceedings from a closet. The first question that springs to mind is: what the hell was anyone who had anything to do with this thinking? And the second is: how did Russell Simmons ever think it was perfectly OK to release a video that depicts a slave being raped to comedic effect?
The video, if you want to watch it, is embedded above — Simmons has since pulled it off his site, replacing it with a statement wherein he notes that “I’ve never taken down a controversial comedian… [but] when my buddies from the NAACP called and asked me to take down the Harriet Tubman video from the All Def Digital YouTube channel and apologize, I agreed… I would never condone violence against women in any form, and for all of those I offended, I am sincerely sorry.”
Well, then. Simmons’ statement is a fine example of the modern phenomenon of the non-apology apology — the “apologies if anyone was offended” construction so beloved of modern celebrities who’ve been caught out doing something stupid, which carries the implication that if you’re actually one of the people who was offended, well, it’s your problem, not mine. But, dude, you’re talking about a video that’s based around the idea that, hey, isn’t it hilarious to think about how black slaves were raped by their masters?
Because, let’s be clear, what this video depicts is rape. By definition. It is an unwilling woman having sex with a man she doesn’t want to have sex with — the script even alludes to this, with “Tubman” saying to her master, “all these years I’ve been acting like I didn’t enjoy our special time together.” The fact that the abuse is done in a slapstick style doesn’t change this one little bit. That the woman involved is one of the greatest heroines of the pre-emancipation era is more a case of adding insult to injury than anything else — even if this video didn’t depict Harriet Tubman, it’d still be making fun of rape, a fact that seems to have escaped its creator.
The header to Simmons’ post claims that he “gets it,” but the post itself suggests that isn’t the case. He describes the scene depicted as “Harriet Tubman outwitting the slave master,” which, hey, the real Harriet Tubman also did, albeit in a way quite different from what the video depicts. That’s not to say she never suffered at the hands of her masters, though — she suffered a head injury in her youth after a slave master threw a two-pound weight at another slave and hit her instead, and was shipped as a child, apparently carrying the scars for the rest of her life. None of that makes for particularly great comedy fodder, eh?
It’s been notable how few commentators (outside Twitter) have called the video out for what it is — even people who’ve been royally pissed off with Simmons and the video and the whole sorry business have referred to the sex as “sexual escapade,” a “sexual romp,” and “carnal relations.” In fairness, none of these commentators are in any way endorsing the video, and the sex is so parodic as to be not even remotely naturalistic, but still, we should describe it as what it is: rape. And it wouldn’t be funny even if it weren’t making light of an institution — slavery — that institutionalized rape and sexual abuse on a terrifyingly grand scale.
It’s particularly disappointing to see this coming from a man who’s otherwise been so prominent and vocal in his his support for entirely worthy causes: animal rights, gay rights, racial equality, and general philanthropy. His support for this video, and the subsequent non-apology, suggests that he still has more to learn about women’s rights: “I guess,” he pondered on Twitter after pulling the video down, “I have a sensitivity chip missing.” Indeed, Russell Simmons. Indeed.