Dear All Def Digital History and Russell Simmons; Re: Harriet Tubman
By now you’ve taken the video of Harriet Tubman using her African wilds to seduce her “master,” and blackmail him by video, off of YouTube. A lot of people are screaming offense at what they saw and are hearing about this video and I was so shocked when I got the news from Twitter, that I had to read ten essays about it before I believed it could be true. It’s not unforgivable, and it’s really not shocking given the license to be irreverent people feel is carte blanche when talking about racial chattel slavery in the New World. Some people try to minimize the trauma of slavery through insane political rhetoric and many of us inside “the community,” whatever the hell that is, have often only been able to confront our American crucible—slavery—through dissonant comedic passive aggressiveness. There’s really nothing new about this; to quote Mrs. Rachel Cruze, a formerly enslaved woman from Tennessee:
Jim always laughed fit to kill himself when he told about that yam. I have noticed so many times when a colored person is telling of some real cruel treatment he has had at the hands of his master, he seems to think it funny and laugh and laugh. I can’t understand it.
Old habits die hard, huh?
On Friday I hope to ride out to Nash County, North Carolina—the heart of the earliest and northernmost part of the Cotton Belt–to see “Oak Forest,” the plantation of my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, a Methodist preacher. He was not an enslaved person there. He was the enslaver with 34 enslaved captives. His grandson, Richard, fathered an enslaved child by a sixteen year old girl, Sallie, on the family’s plantation in Alabama. It was probably not consensual, and she was half his age.
I’m going to take an opposites approach. I can harangue people with waaaaaay bigger platforms than I have about how offensive this concept was (since I haven’t seen the video I can’t judge it on any of its own merits) or I can get to the “white meat,” so to speak. The problem is perhaps not this asinine and historically ignorant portrayal of a supposedly humorous scenario; it’s that we don’t talk about “interracial” mixing and forced breeding during American slavery enough to make this type of free speech more morally appalling and culturally unnecessary.
I see a lot of people responding to this video by talking about rape and abuse during slavery. While the pronouns are inclusive, “we” and “our,” I’d like to bring it down to an even baser level. “My.” “Mine.”
Since I found Oak Forest plantation at four o’clock in the morning last night, I have been confronted by a harmattan of emotions. I walked through the halls of the North Carolina Museum of History looking for myself in the exhibit. Instead of calling on the African American portions for some sort of clue as to who I am and what they were, I found myself taking snapshots of information on wealthy English planters and their descendants. I will confess I do not have a drop of pride in this particular heritage. It was rape, sexual abuse, and coercion by force of will not a romance or equal status under the law or a harmonious union of cultures that brought me into existence.
Mr. Simmons, when I look at you, I see that you too may well be a member of the 25% club. According to Dr. Henry Louis Gates, the majority of African Americans have just about 15-20% of their ancestry from Europe. In a more selective club, 19% of us are 25% European and more. That’s me. As I study my family history in relationship to food history and notions of food and power I’ve decided to embrace that rootstock as a means of taking a bit of power back. One of the hallmarks of racism in the West is the ability of the West to largely deny that Western genes and African genes have long since mixed wherever the Peculiar institution thrived.
Being part white isn’t the issue—it never was—“kiss me, I’m everything.” It’s this ugly part of American slavery that everybody feels they can joke about without being held to account for it. Take the Jefferson-Hemmings controversy for example: TMZ jocularly referred to Jefferson “banging” his slaves as if the servants quarters were the set of a porno shoot. Family Guy was a little bit more subtle when they had Jefferson’s Black “family” gather for a portrait and dozens of brown children come out of the woodwork—or should we say woodpile? “Ha… ha”….but those children were mostly “passing,” not obviously the offspring of an forced “interracial” liaison.
All of this brings me to this simple ass video that somebody thought was cleaver or that you Mr. Simmons personally promoted as the “funniest thing I’ve ever seen.” So the “outlandish and irreverent” skit uses the modern theme of recorded sexual blackmail to suggest Harriet Tubman blackmailed her way into running the Underground Railroad. I’m still struggling to even smirk and admit any of that was cleaver. It’s not that Harriet Tubman has been sainted or that her story can’t be humorous. She once clocked a man in order to knock him out and take him to Canada to keep him from punking out and being taken back into slavery after a trial where he lost his bid for freedom. Little “Minty,” transformed into “Miss Harriet,” and took a grown ass man and threw him over her shoulder and told everybody—including the arresting sheriff—“Peace!”
Now that’s funny! And true….we think.
However the poking fun at sexual coercion, rape and abuse during slavery is not. That’s not a good enough reason not to do this kind of skit again however. No….that’s not what I’m going for here. We African Americans have an unnecessary stigma when we talk about being part European American. White people living today don’t bear the responsibility of my great-great-great grandfather’s rape. However we all should know, appreciate and respect that we are indeed kin to one another—as uncomfortable as that conversation can and SHOULD be.
When I get to see the “old place,” as enslaved folks used to put it. I’m going to be confronted with questions far deeper than this avant garde little skit ever tried to bring out. What does this place or this house, or this assumed grandeur have to do with me? Am I by default at all responsible or culpable for the suffering of anybody Black who lived here? Were any of them my relatives to—or kin to the people his son took to Alabama? If this man was a minister how could be do this to other people? Will I ever be accepted by people with whom I share names, blood, genes, kin?
(Dear Bellamy family—of Nash, Edgecombe and Halifax counties—even Wilmington—and any Bellamys, Crowells and Belmonts in Alabama or NC if you’re reading this—I have a lot of questions…)
I want the next generation to look at this history critically and face the fact that we are all in this together. When my AncestrybyDNA links come up—most of them are white people. As much as I want to know my African ancestral connections—and some of that is soon to come—I’ve made my peace with this very ugly piece of history. I am a Bellamy, a Crowell, a Belmont, a Benton, a Mungo, a Pate. I am English, French Huguenot, Scots-Irish, Scottish and Irish—something more complex than a pithy little skit can poke fun of. “Who do you think you are?”—Indeed.
It scares me and makes me angry because I can feel the trauma left behind when our wives, mothers and daughters were violated before our very eyes because they were such a “troublesome species of property.” A lot of us wish we could do time travel and give the women that we came from back their dignity and respect—but something tells me I can’t give them what they obviously already had. My mom likes to say, “I know the women I came from had to be strong—they survived all of that—so I could be here—and you could too.” Harriet Tubman was one of those women, and as much as I respect your right to free speech—hands off. Thank you for your wider contribution to African American story and for the apology but, if you want to do “living history” again—leave that to me—when I dress “like a slave,” it’s meant to educate, not denigrate.
Michael W. Twitty
Akiba Ben Avraham Avinu V’Sarah Imenu