As I type these words, ‘Harriet Tubman’ is trending on Twitter. Not because of a celebration of her contributions to society as we know it. And no, it is not February. Harriet Tubman is presently a trending topic on Twitter because some jackasses saw fit to write, film, edit, and post a “comedy” video on YouTube depicting Harriet Tubman willfully submitting to being fucked doggy-style by her owner, and then apparently pegging him in return. This is not the freedom Dr. King died for.
The words ‘Harriet Tubman Sex Tape’ first stank up my Twitter feed in the middle of an otherwise calm afternoon, and I really couldn’t believe my eyes. I clicked on a tweet about it and the still images alone turned my stomach.
I didn’t click the link. I couldn’t. I felt compelled to write about it, about my decision to not even watch it, and I even got some requests to write about the video from some incredibly supportive people via Twitter. But I just couldn’t. An opinion offered on something that I have not experienced would be an uneducated opinion and that is the last thing I would want to be seen as.
OK, maybe the second-to-last thing. The last thing I want to be seen as is the comedy police and after writing this
, I was terrified that that is precisely what would happen. That I would surely never work again, and that the comedy world would hate me. And still…I was curious…
My morbid curiosity was trumped by the fact that I was having a lovely afternoon and I didn’t need what I was certain would be a nightmare destroying my chill. But then I felt guilty. After all, I too make the funny and I’ve certainly posted videos on my YouTube channel
that could potentially be deemed offensive or taken the wrong way. Shouldn’t I at least give this video a chance? I’ve certainly done some outlandish shit whilst comeding; who am I to judge?
And there’s always the chance that—gulp-- I would like the Harriet Tubman video. AND I could watch it alone and I wouldn’t even have to tell anyone if I did!
But no. The thumbnail image of a black actress in slave drag bent over at the waist with a white man on his knees spoke louder than my curiosity.
And then all of a sudden, it was gone. In the course of a few hours, there had been a digital outcry, a change.org petition, and ultimately a HOLLOW ‘apology
’ on Twitter from Russell Simmons, the media mogul who was launching his online content channel All Def Digital with this video and who called it “[The] funniest thing I’ve ever seen” on Twitter. Riiiiiiiiiiiight.
Grammatical errors to boot. SMH
Even the laziest reminiscence of Mr. Simmons’ own Def Comedy Jam exposes this as mere promotional hyperbole for Def Jam’s digital demon bastard child All Def Digital. I read the unsorry nonapology in utter disbelief. Still, I tried to leave it alone, to continue to crack wise online and carry on with my night. I didn’t want to watch.
But you know me by now. Would you be reading this if I hadn’t watched it?
Once I decided to engage but couldn’t find the video, I breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing that it had been removed, comforted in my cowardice and cozy in my sudden lack of access. Then I saw the link, glowing and alive amongst the comments and replies to Mr. Simmons’ unsorry little statement. I thought to myself, ‘I’m safely at home alone now and I have my emergency bottle of red wine in the cupboard’. And so I watched.
It is even worse than I could have imagined. I can’t stop wondering how many people were involved in the making of this YouTube conflagration? I completely understand that most people don’t look at a filmed scene and think of how many other unseen individuals are there also, but as an actor, I always do. (This is also one of the reasons why I cannot endure most reality television, but that is a post for another day.)
Simply put: If you’re looking at something that was taped and it’s not a selfie, then someone is holding the camera. If you can hear dialogue, chances are someone is either holding a boom mic just out of frame or they were responsible for outfitting the actors with body mics. Is the video a mess of shadows and darkness? No? There just might be someone shining a light on the proceedings.
Even if the actors were responsible for the technical elements too, as I am with my videos, that’s still three grown adults who had to sign off on this shit. Someone had to powder the actors’ faces, secure the location, either make or purchase the wardrobe, etc. I don’t frequent Party City; do they sell slave costumes?
The angry tweets I had fired off when I had not yet viewed the full scope of the horror gave way to an ugly silence.
How has this valley of despair at having to point out the criminal non-humor in the continued denigration of black women become a repeat stop on my journey? Why should anyone have to say what I am about to say?
To all involved with the video: you should be ashamed of yourselves. It has been suggested that perhaps this was all an orchestrated ploy to garner publicity, and even though I personally cannot fathom trampling the graves of the ancestors for fifteen seconds of internet infamy, I know atrocities that I cannot fathom are perpetrated daily nonetheless so I will not name the actors involved here, just in case they would like that. Suffice it to say that they are what our society calls “YouTube Sensations”, to which I say:
: "I have a YouTube channel. I work blue. But if denigrating Harriet Tubman's legacy is what makes one a "YouTube Sensation," call me a failure."
There is no suspension of disbelief I can muster that allows for a black female slave and actual historical figure to be portrayed as feigning sexual attraction to what can legitimately be called her rapist during what can legitimately be called rape as part of some allegedly comedic scheme to make a sex tape for blackmail purposes.
: "I guess I have a sensitivity chip missing. Lol. Haven't been in trouble since defjam. Sorry if people r hurt :("
Oh. Well when you put it like that, all is forgiven.
At my most forgiving, I can almost hear those involved sitting around a table laughing—“And then Harriet will call the white man ‘nigger’ and it will be HILARIOUS!” or “Of course you wouldn’t have a video camera in the 1800s and that’s why it’s HILARIOUS!”
Listen. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; I am not the arbiter of taste and comedy is subjective. Please feel free to hate anything I’ve ever posted or written. But first of all, context matters: I don’t have the platform and audience that Russell Simmons & Co. have, and if you say I delight in shitting on my people or that I’ve ever done anything that warranted intervention from the NAACP, as this video did, I will ask you to show me the receipts.
The question I posed online to the lead actress in the hateful skit, which—SHOCKER—went unanswered, was “What was the mood like on set?” I asked this before I watched. And upon watching, I got my answer because the editor(s) had the unmitigated gall to include outtakes at the end.
To hear an off-camera voice directing this garbage, to see the actors break and crack up…I died a little tonight. There is even an odious take directly to camera at the end where an actor breaks character and says a virtual “Wassup” to -- well, I guess to anyone who was not projectile vomiting at that point and wanted to be personally welcomed into the nightmare.
All Def Digital should have been a place where I could submit my own work. Russell Simmons could have been a force for good, as he has purported to be. Instead I am losing sleep and faith spitting these words through my fingertips because I’m afraid. I’m afraid that those of us who clap back may not be fully heard beyond our own community; afraid that no one whose eyes this video passed in front of at any point from pitch to execution to editing to posting online expressed any reservations worth listening to; afraid that my very identity will always be Their punchline.
But what do I know? Watch the video and make up your own mind. They took it down but I put it back up. I don’t really want to give this abomination any more shine, but I also want people to be able to make up their own minds, and please feel free to tell me if I am being hyper-sensitive.
Trigger warning for utterly reprehensible bullshit: