Hip-Hop pioneer, philanthropist and media mogul Russell Simmons has arguably made a career profiting from the degradation and objectification of Black women, so his stamp of approval on a Harriet Tubman Sex Tape parody should not have sent shock waves of horror down the spines of Black women.
But it did.
It didn’t surprise outraged Black women solely because Simmons’ newly launched media venture All Def Digital chose to mock the grotesque inhumanity of slave rape in its inaugural outing. It didn’t anger us merely because Harriet Tubman was a warrior who led grown men — paralyzed with fear — to their freedom only to have her legacy assaulted by a man who stands on her shoulders.
We weren’t appalled simply because the hypersexualized, manipulative depiction of Mother Harriet is a deeply misogynistic, historically flawed, stereotypical portrait of Black women which haunts us in contemporary “reality” television and pop culture.
No, we remain infuriated by his pathetic, cowardly, patronizing non-apology and his obvious belief that his male and economic privilege insulates him from further critique.
Read Simmons’ pseudo-apology below:
In the whole history of Def Comedy Jam, I’ve never taken down a controversial comedian. 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’m a very liberal person with thick skin. My first impression of the Harriet Tubman piece was that it was about what one of actors said in the video, that 162 years later, there’s still tremendous injustice. And with Harriet Tubman outwitting the slave master? I thought it was politically correct. Silly me. I can now understand why so many people are upset. I have taken down the video. Lastly, I would never condone violence against women in any form, and for all of those I offended, I am sincerely sorry.
See below for what he really meant, as read between the lines by yours truly:
In the whole history of Def Comedy Jam, I’ve never taken down a controversial comedian, so respect the fact that I’m doing you a favor. When I realized that I was getting bad press, I grudgingly removed the video, but I still believe that Harriet Tubman in a strap-on banging “Massa” from the back is “the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”
There are more important things to worry about than sexism and the virulent Rape Culture that poisons society – like ending the War on Drugs. Listen, sex is power. Better to screw for a cause, than for free. And quite frankly, I got too much money to be worried about this bullshit, so I took down the video. Happy now?
U.O.E.N.O how sorry I am.
But just so you’re aware, slave rape isn’t really violence. If you can’t understand that, my bad. For real.
– Uncle Rush (Card)
Though the initial “apology” was disrespectful enough, he added insult to injury when the criticism didn’t cease:
I I guess I have a sensitivity chip missing. Lol. Haven’t been in trouble since defjam. Sorry if people r hurt :-(
— Russell Simmons (@UncleRUSH) August 15, 2013
Ironically, Simmons’ devastating disregard for the sexual violence that Black women were forced to endure during slavery came on the heels of the hashtag #BlackPowerIsForBlackMen created by EBONY Digital News + Lifestyle Editor Jamilah Lemieux. Taking a critical look at sexism and misogyny within the Black Power movement, #BlackPowerIsForBlackMen exposed the ugly truth that the words of El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (Malcolm X) still ring true over 50 years later:
“The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black women. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”
Russell Simmons could have shown maturity and clarity, but there is clearly none there as it pertains to handling the legacies of our foremothers with the respect they deserve. He should not have apologized “if people are hurt” or if we’re “offended.” He should have apologized because he has two young daughters who may one day have their bodies viewed as commodities by vulture capitalists looking for a cheap buck and a quick laugh. He should have apologized for mocking Harriet Tubman’s legacy of courage and strength.
Simmons could have set aside his ego and bravado, his blatant sense of entitlement, and declared his gross disrespect a learning experience on how to be a better ally to Black women. He could have said that he was embarrassed and ignorant, but that moving forward he will use my platform to raise awareness of Rape Culture and the many ways that Hip-Hop fuels it’s existence within the Black community.
He could have acknowledged that Black male slaves often had to grit their teeth while their wives were violated by slavemasters, and that maybe — just maybe — having a Black slave in the closet telling Harriet Tubman to “drop it like it’s hot” and to “shake it fast” is utterly reprehensible. He could have admitted the hypocrisy of calling CNN‘s Don Lemon a “slave” for his misguided views on Black culture and accountability, while he himself traffics slave rape porn as a “joke.”
He could have humbly apologized for diluted Harriet Tubman’s strength to the V between her thighs.
Instead of saying any of these things, the Def Jam founder’s response upon being called to further accept his role in raping the legacy and defiling the dignity of one of our soldiers was primarily “…Lol. Sorry if people are hurt :-(”
So even though some Black male scholars, activists and civic leaaders who raised hell for Trayvon Martin and blasted Lil Wayne for his desecration of Emmett Till’s legacy largely remained silent — and, once again, some White feminists, as with Quvenzhane Wallis, seemed to conveniently take a social media break during the height of the storm — Black women will not bow out gracefully. We will not be silenced. We will not be told to place Russell Simmon’s reputation above the sacrifices of Harriet Tubman. We will not be told that art is subjective and there is no policing comedy.
Black women are no longer going to be told to tread cautiously as to not jeopardize the standing of Black men in power who don’t give a damn, and wouldn’t give it to us even if they did. We deserve respect because we are Black. We deserve respect because we are women. We deserve respect because we are human — and we will continue to demand it.
Harriet Tubman taught us that.
So, we’re waiting, Mr. Simmons. The next move is yours.
Follow Kirsten West Savali on Twitter at @KWestSavali.