The Rape of Harriet Tubman

This year marked the 100th anniversary of the passing of Harriet Tubman. I had the opportunity to celebrate that fact when organizing a special symposium back in March, resulting in some thought-provoking critical papers on her legacy of resistance, which I’m currently guest-editing for Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism.

One of the more interesting conversations that came out of this event questioned why, on the anniversary of her death, we have yet to experience an epic cinematic treatment of her life.  She certainly qualified for that great Hollywood biopic. Against all odds, as a disabled enslaved woman, she escaped to freedom–having learned of the Underground Railroad network that included support from black and white allies–and once she made it to the other side returned to slavery 17 more times to free countless other slaves.

Tubman used all sorts of wit and trickery to enable her dangerous journey in this secretive network, and even believed in her divine right and power to engage in liberation. She collaborated with John Brown on the raid at Harper’s Ferry, recruiting slaves for the project, but her illness at the time prevented her from taking part in the uprising. During the Civil War, she served as a Union army spy, nurse and soldier, and in 1863, she led a successful military campaign on Combahee River in South Carolina, resulting in the liberation of 750 slaves.

In short, she’s the stuff of legend–for black history, women’s history, American history. The fictional Django from Django Unchained ain’t got nothing on her!

But on the year of her centennial anniversary, what does Tubman get instead of the great Hollywood biopic? She gets a “sex tape.”

You read that correctly. Recently, in an internet launch of his new YouTube channel, All Def Digital, rap media mogul Russell Simmons featured a failed comedic video titled Harriet Tubman Sex Tape–the first in the line-up of this new series. It didn’t take long for black audiences on social media to utterly denounce this video and petition against it. Within 24 hours, Simmons removed the video from his channel and issued this apology:

My first impression of the Harriet Tubman piece was that it was about what one of the 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.

It is amazing that Simmons could not have predicted the outrage upon seeing such a video–which infers that, in order to build an Underground Railroad network to free the slaves, Tubman basically used blackmail against her white slaveowner by conniving with a fellow male slave to create a “sex tape” of their sexual encounter that she could later use as “leverage.” Then again, this is what porn culture will do to one’s perspective–something Simmons has perpetuated in his decades-long involvement with sexist rap music and culture.

Just reading the video’s premise was enough to make my blood boil, but sometimes, especially when you do media analysis as part of your scholarship, you just have to be a witness. So I viewed the video, and I don’t believe I am exaggerating when I say that, on this centennial anniversary, Harriet Tubman got raped.

Most of Tubman’s biographers have argued that there is no documentation that Tubman experienced sexual abuse while enslaved.  She was definitely physically abused–routinely beaten, and at one point as an adolescent suffered a head injury caused by an overseer who threw a two-pound weight against her head, breaking her skull and nearly killing her. The injury impacted her throughout her 91 years of life, as she was often given to sleeping spells (which Tubman claimed brought on various dreams and prophetic visions).

Slavery was “hell,” Tubman described in her narrative, dictated to Sarah Bradford since she could neither read nor write. She experienced a great deal of trauma while enslaved, but if there were any experiences with rape–which marked the experiences of far too many enslaved women–Tubman remained silent on the issue. It’s still also possible that, as hellish as her experience might have been, she was spared from a deeper hell that sexual violence brings to the picture. Which is why Simmons’ “sex tape” adds insult to injury.

It’s a hell of a sobering reality to realize that, 100 years after Tubman’s passing, our porn culture–intertwined inextricably with rape culture–would produce such a demeaning narrative about one of our great American heroes. It happened not because there is any basis in history for such an imagined scenario (Tubman simply would not engage in sexual leverage–it’s not part of the essence of who she was) but because our culture continues to trivialize rape (which is what we must categorize any unequal encounter between a slaveowner and slave, regardless of “consent”) and debase women’s experiences.  Ironically, the horrendous truth about sex tapes is that they tend to be used as leverage not against men but against women! It is women who are often blackmailed or demeaned when sex tapes are made available on the Internet. Women are the ones who have everything to lose, considering the slut-shaming that still clings to female sexuality. Sure, some celebrities might parlay such “porn” videos into a career, but the intention of sex tapes is public humiliation.

The Harriet Tubman Sex Tape publicly humiliates one of our great icons, and if she–whom many believe is inviolable, sacred, untouchable–can be debased, then not one of us is safe.

I don’t mean to suggest that Tubman, more than anyone else, deserves “hands off” treatment. The backlash against the video has already produced a troubling discourse around the desecration of our “ancestor, our great Mother Tubman,” which is steeped in respectability politics. We should be outraged when any woman is demeaned in this manner.

And before anyone accuses me of being too sensitive, consider this: In order for satire or parody to work (whether it’s funny or not), there has to be a kernel of truth to the punch line. This atrocious video bases its insults on historical lies:

Lie #1–Tubman is sexually conniving

As I already mentioned, it’s just not part of Tubman’s character to engage in sexual leverage. She was deeply religious, and if she were given to any kind of negotiation out of slavery, it was when she married a free black man, John Tubman, whom she eventually left when circumstances that would cause her to be sold away from her family propelled her escape. The portrayal of Tubman aggressively using sex as a bargaining chip, or even including dialogue suggesting that her previous rejections of her owner’s sexual advances were based on a lie (i.e. rape victims really enjoy it), feeds into the worst stereotypes of hypersexual Jezebels–a trope slaveowners used as a cover for their rapes of enslaved women.

Lie #2–Tubman is a Big Woman

This may seem a trivial point, but the real punch line of the video is the size of the body of “Tubman” undergoing different sex positions. The actor, Shanna Malcolm, may have signed up to portray Tubman outwitting her owner, but Malcolm’s the one who seems to have been outwitted (she admitted as much on Twitter when she saw the final cut). The humor is at her expense. In reality, Tubman was a tiny five-foot woman, whose smallness amazed everyone because of her physical and emotional strength. As such, the heavier actor portraying her is depicted not to capture the historical Tubman, but instead to capture a stereotypical distortion of enslaved black womanhood. She’s the asexual Mammy, a different stereotype that slaveowners constructed as a deflection from accusations that they were raping enslaved women. If Mammy is depicted as big, dark and aggressive–in contrast to the cultural feminine ideal of small, fair and passive–then slaves posed no sexual threat (meaning that rapes didn’t happen).

Hopefully, we all know what a lie that perpetuates, since rape is based on power, not desire.

In addressing the physical portrayal of Tubman in the video, this is not to suggest that bigger, darker women are not attractive–only that attraction is not a prerequisite for rape. But that has never stopped rapists from promoting this lie through stereotypes that cover up their guilty tracks. The very fact that the different sex acts featured in the video serve as a visual “gag” (the supposed incongruity of a white man with a plus-sized black woman) feeds this racist, sexist and fatphobic trope, which was used during the antebellum period and continued throughout Jim Crow and present-day porn culture.

Lie #3–A slaveowner could be bribed into supporting the Underground Railroad

The absurdity of this premise is steeped in historical and cultural ignorance. Ignoring for the moment that we are not to take seriously the joke because of the anachronistic use of a video camera, some other impossibilities abound: Not only would Tubman not be able to gain leverage with a “sex tape” (on the premise that her “massa” would give in to supporting her escape plans if she showed said tape to his wife), but, in reality, most mistresses knew of their husbands’ transgressions. This knowledge didn’t always help slaves; sometimes it made the situation worse as they then suffered physical abuse under their mistresses, who resented the situation as they, too, did not have power (sexual or otherwise) to stop their husbands’ abuses. They were all operating under a system supporting white male supremacy.

Finally, no slaveowner would willingly support a network that would deprive him of the free labor his economy depended on–hence slaveowners lobbying in Congress for the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, which would return captured fugitives living in the free states back to their owners. Again, one could only find this “joke” funny if there were a kernel of truth in the premise.

Most African Americans (especially black feminists) who reacted swiftly to this demeaning portrayal understand the lies the video tells, which are far more dangerous than any failed humor. At the end of the day, the existence of this video–pulled by Simmons or not (actually, others have already downloaded the video and republished it elsewhere)–reinforces the pain of a history that many of us still refuse to acknowledge in its entirety.

Which isn’t to say that a comedy based on Harriet Tubman couldn’t be funny. Pierre Bennu’s Black Moses Barbie actually demonstrates how one can be hilarious about Tubman’s legacy while maintaining the basic integrity of what she represented. But there does need to be some truth-telling (even when obvious anachronisms and exaggerations are added) to the comical story. The great comedic geniuses–think Richard Pryor or Dave Chapelle– understood as much.

Tubman deserves an epic biopic, not this trash, and our present-day culture is far too steeped in amoral, ahistorical, corporatized impulses that produce, distribute, promote and recycle garbage. Its toxins have polluted our cultural environment with ideologies of misogyny and white supremacy.

That’s what porn culture does: It debases us all, while rape culture reinforces the debasement.

Photo of Harriet Tubman courtesy of Scewing via Wikimedia Commons


Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.