Russell Simmons, the co-founder of Def Jam records, has, like so many business leaders, recently expanded his business onto YouTube in an initiative known as All Def Digital. The channel features music, videos, and comedy, but unfortunately it got off to a bit of a rough start this week. One of its first videos was a history-themed comedy sketch that featured Underground Railroad hero Harriet Tubman using a (sepia-tinted, sped-up) sex tape to blackmail her slavemaster into allowing the Underground Railroad to operate. The clip has sparked widespread outrage around the internet, and Def Jam eventually pulled it after a Change.org petition was created urging them to do just that.
Britni Danielle at Clutch Magazine summarized her list of grievances with the video:
"Downplaying the very real rapes and abuse Black women endured during slavery? Check.
Casting an obese Harriet Tubman to play into of the negative stereotypes about Black women’s bodies? Check.
Portraying Black women as Jezebels who use sex to get what they want? Check.
Normalizing the idea that all Black women are sassy and always have something smart to say? Check.
Portraying Black men as coons? Check, check, check."
Perhaps the creator of the video was emboldened by some recent representations of slavery, such as Quentin Tarrantino's Django Unchained, that use revisionist history in the service of trickster and revenge narratives. Such representations can have a positive effect on the public's historical awareness, as portrayals of marginalized people can remind us of their role in creating history. They can even spark symbolically important change. Steven Spielberg's biopic Lincoln made Mississippi residents realize their state had never officially ratified the Thirteenth Amendment.
But while Tarrantino's film used violence as a kind of catharsis, Simmons's concept — which revolves around the (only slight) anachronism of Tubman using a video camera to create a sex tape with which to blackmail her master — only de-emphasizes Tubman's intrinsically persuasive endeavors and gets the struggles she endured completely wrong (she could not have logistically operated the Underground Railroad as anything but a fugitive slave).
What's surprising, however, is that Simmons, who is black, as well as the black actors in the film, didn't initially find it offensive. According to Slate, a tweet that Simmons has now pulled called the video the "funniest thing" he has ever seen. "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," he wrote in his apology.
Simmons also didn't come up with the idea, even though he has taken full responsibility for it. The director who wrote and created this video will surely live to create more offensive nonsense — though hopefully he or she has been chastened by the reaction.