"I freed a thousand slaves I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves." Harriet Tubman
Recent events have been marinating in my mind causing me to—once again—mull over what it means to be a Black woman in this society. Don’t get me wrong; I love being Black and I love being a woman. Why wouldn’t I as they are both integral parts of me. But there are days when it feels like I’m wrapped in layers on a 100 degree day in the summertime. Hot. Muggy. Stifling and suffocating in this skin I’m in. I tried to ignore the, itchy fabric of racism and sexism roughly rubbing against my skin. But I couldn’t. So, I scratched until I bled.
It started when I heard about the Harriet Tubman Sex Tape. It seems that Hip-Hop Mogul turned activist, Russell Simmons has a You Tube Channel called All Def Digital. And a team of people thought it would be fun to create a parody of Harriet Tubman seducing her slave master while another slave video taped the sex act for Tubman to use as leverage to blackmail the slave master into building the Underground Railroad. I admit, I have a twisted sense of humor and can find humor in some of the unlikeliest places. But what I do among family and friends is different from that which plays out on a stage for the world. In a country steeped in racism and sexism, humor around these issues can be a slippery slope if not handled incorrectly. You squirm. You laugh. But did you get the lesson?
In this case, it wasn’t funny, It was distasteful. And the lesson learned: All your skin folk ain’t your kinfolk. The Harriet Tubman Sex Tape reduced the historical significance of a fearless woman who once had a $40,000 bounty on her head to that of a hooker turning a trick. Not only did it degrade and devalue the legacy of Harriet Tubman, it also fed the popularly held myths about the insatiable sexual appetite and cunningness of Black women.
Simmons who describes himself as “a very liberal person with thick skin” claims that the intent of the video was to show that there is still a great deal of injustice, but Tubman outwits the slave master in the end and wins. “I thought it was politically correct. Silly me.” The fact that Russell didn’t recognize the error of his ways until his “buddies” at the NAACP advised him to take it down irritated me. But the fast and furious backlash against the parody soothed by soul like calamine cream.
But before I could fully feel the relief, I started scratching again. This time the source of my itch: Miley Cyrus. In trying to reinvent herself, Cyrus has opted for something more edgy. She was quoted as saying, “I want something urban. I want something that feels black.” Translation: ghetto, hood, ratchet or whatever other terminology that is used to describe urban areas-especially those populated by African Americans. The song “Can’t Stop” passed over by Rihanna, but claimed by Cyrus,is her attempt to “blacken” her sound.
Cyrus’ poorly executed appropriation of urban subculture brought so much attention to “twerking” that it has now been added to the dictionary. Thank you Miley. Not only did Cyrus’ performance exploit Black women, it was just bizarre and weird. It made “twerking” look bad. I know girls and young women who twerk, and there is a level of skill required for them to execute the booty-popping, booty- shaking antics that they do. Cyrus’ fake twerking wasn’t even close.
There are those who look at twerking as disgraceful and uncultured. I’m not one of them. There is a time and a place for everything. And posted up on Social Media is not the place for it. Twerking should be done for fun; it should be done in private. I’m always reminded of the words of my elders growing up, “What goes on in this house, stays in this house.” Too many of us have forgotten that lesson. Your public self and your private self should not be one in the same.
The infuriating thing about Simmons and Cyrus is that they both got what they wanted—attention which translates into hits which ultimately translate into money. And they did it on the backs of Black women. And we gave them permission. This makes me itch even more because we choose to participate in our own objectification. Simmons and the actors in The Harriet Tubman Sex Tape were Black. Cyrus’ dancers were Black. Where is our sense of value?
It reminds of the story of Sarah "Saartjie" Baartman a South African Khoikhoi woman who was put display in Europe for her "exotic” body parts. This exploitation was continued even in death when her genitals were preserved and put in jars for public viewing. During the time Baartman was being exhibited as part of a freak show, an abolitionist benevolent society called the African Association campaigned for her release, and the case ended up in court. But the case was dismissed after Baartman testified that she was not under restraint.
Not under restraint. Simmons doesn’t know that Black women are still under restraint. Cyrus doesn’t know that Black women are still under restrain. And the Black women who signed on for this foolishness do not know that they are still under restraint. What’s next? A video of Harriet Tubman twerking? Where do we draw the line?