How do we honour our heroes? By remembering them; by ensuring that whatever they lived by, stood for or died changing is treasured and taken account of in what we do and how we live. When we build monuments to them and ensure that they remain relevant; that the young generation respects them, we are honouring them.
Twenty-five years ago, Caribbean-Canadian writer, professor and former lawyer Marlene Nourbese Philip’s first book, Harriet’s Daughter was published to critical acclaim. Before long it was being widely used in high school curricula in Ontario, Great Britain and in the Caribbean. In fact, for a decade, it was used by the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) as one of the books students studied for their English B (Literature) examinations at the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) level. Now being used at the Grade Eight (Form Two) level, the book tells the story of a Toronto-based black teenager, Margaret, whose heroine is Harriet Tubman. So taken is Margaret by Harriet Tubman and her life that she tried to dress the way she imagined Harriet Tubman dressed and also, along with her school friends, invented a game in which they led slaves to freedom à la Harriet Tubman.
Aside from teaching young adults about a black American heroine, Harriet’s Daughter also pays tribute to Harriet Tubman’s work through its description of Margaret’s ingenuity in getting her school friend Zulma to escape unhappiness and fulfil her yearning to return to Tobago to live. Its message to its demographic audience is: you can take control of your life; you do not have to be a slave to anything or anyone.
Harriet Tubman (Araminta Harriet Ross) was born into slavery in the USA in 1820. Somewhere around 1849, she escaped and subsequently made more than a dozen forays back into what would have been a dangerous area for her to be in, rescuing more than 300 slaves. In order to ensure their total freedom, she led some of them as far as Canada. After the abolition of slavery and before her death in 1913, Tubman was very active in the woman’s suffrage movement in New York. It goes without saying then that this woman was a hero and her memory ought to be cherished.
Black American hip-hop and media mogul Russell Simmons did not get it and so he deservedly came under heavy fire this past week for making and releasing a video on his All Def Digital Channel on YouTube called the ‘Harriet Tubman Sextape.’ He has since issued an apology and removed the controversial three-minute video which was dubbed “a comedy” and featured an actress portraying Tubman making a sex video with her “master” in 1851. The storyline of the sick sketch was that the anti-slavery icon willingly submitted to her owner to earn her freedom, filmed it and then blackmailed him.
Worse than that is the fact that Simmons had initially failed to grasp why he was roasted, why Tubman’s great granddaughters have refused to forgive him and why no one seemed clued in to what he attempted to pass off as satire. It is simple really. There are some things that you just can’t joke about and will never ever be able to, no matter how much time has gone by, and slavery is one of them. The abomination visited upon African slaves was so extreme it is unthinkable that anyone, particularly a descendant of slaves, would imagine it could be laughed about. That Simmons chose porno-comedy; that he assumed it would be okay to parody an icon like Tubman revealed more about him than he probably cared to let anyone know. It showed deep down how he views women. Neither his repeated mea culpas nor his new plan to “develop the history of Harriet Tubman” can change that. As we would say in Guyana, what he should have done first he did last.
Is there a lesson for any of us in Simmons’ grave error? Possibly. But one assumes that any right thinking person does not need such a lesson – he or she already knows better. There are lessons for Simmons though, and those of his ilk. They are: celebrity status does not give anyone licence to do whatever he/she wants; hip-hop does not rule the world; honour (not debase) your heroes; and last but not least, respect women. What Simmons and others like him do going forward will indicate whether they have learned anything at all.