Don't Mess With Harriet Tubman

Those of us who grew up as gender-nonconforming girls had few role models.

I adopted a male nickname at age 8, was football-, basketball- and softball-crazy and was called a "tomboy" throughout my budding-lesbian childhood. "Why won't she wear dresses?" was a common complaint about me, and I was in a revolving door to Mother Superior's office for questioning authority throughout my Catholic school years.

As all kids do, I searched for representations of myself, but it was an exercise in frustration and futility. An omnivorous reader, I hunted through books, but I wasn't there in literature. Girls like me read books with female heroines only to discover that any brave or courageous action on their part was ultimately unsuccessful. These heroines weren't sheroes: They couldn't rescue themselves, let alone others.

I turned to biographies of women in history, looking for profiles in courage that were irrespective of men. It was there that I found the role models I needed and deserved. A Catholic girl, Joan of Arc, became my savior. She was willing to burn at the stake rather than put on a dress. It was female saints who spoke to her. She saved France, and in my grade school years she saved me.

There were others. There was Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman physician in America. The male doctors would send her their most repulsive cases in an attempt to make her flee the medicine she loved: wounds crawling with maggots, half-eviscerated women from childbirths gone horribly wrong, and so much more. There was Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House and modern social work (and a lesbian, although I didn't understand that then). There was Alice Hamilton, the founder of occupational medicine and a friend of Addams' (and another lesbian).

And then there was Harriet Tubman. I don't recall now how old I was when I first heard her name, but I was quite young. My maternal grandparents were caretakers of a historic home in Philadelphia that had been a stop on the Underground Railroad, and my grandfather, a historian himself, had regaled me with tales of the passage from slavery in the South to freedom in the North. Harriet Tubman was an icon in the stories that my grandfather told me.

Harriet Tubman, a slave whom the rescued called "Moses," was the ultimate heroine, the shero I had been seeking. Harriet Tubman dressed like a man to keep her profile low. Illiterate, she learned to read signs to keep herself and her charges safe. Narcoleptic from a head wound that she had incurred at the hands of a slave master, she learned how to find places to sleep so that she risked no one, including herself. She was a spy for the Union Army. An abolitionist, she spread the anti-slavery gospel wherever she was. Later, after she had led more than 300 slaves -- 300 lives she saved with her bravery and courage -- to safety, she helped John Brown recruit for his Harper's Ferry raid.

In the post-Civil-War years she turned her talents to another needed freedom: women's suffrage.

I fell in love with Harriet Tubman. She was my icon, my touchstone. She was close enough (I'd been in that Underground Railroad tunnel with my grandfather, and I just knew that she'd been there too) for me to know that her spirit was still there. She was dependably a hero who would never be unmasked at the end of the story as just a girl in love with some guy. She was history.

That is, until Aug. 15, 2013, when Russell Simmons turned her into a sex joke. The entrepreneurial icon whose inspirational tweets have been out there guiding young black youth seemed to turn into a jaw-droppingly ugly sexist when his All Def Digital put up a parody video: the "Harriet Tubman sex tape."

The news spread throughout the Internet in record time. I got links on Twitter and via email amazingly fast. Within a few hours the hashtag #HarrietTubmanSexTape was trending on Twitter, but some of us were turning it into #HarrietTubmanRapeTape.

Because that's what it was: a rape tape of arguably the most famous black woman in American history.

The parody video (it's since been taken down from YouTube) purported to be Harriet Tubman having voluntary sex with her slave master while another slave videotaped it for blackmail purposes.

I didn't laugh when I saw it (although the acting is terrible). Rather, I cried -- actual sobs. This woman, this magnificent, fabulous, courageous, amazing savior of 300 slaves, countless other men and women and also a little girl from Philadelphia in desperate need of a female hero, had had her reputation tarnished in such an ugly way, and not by some random, Confederate-flag-toting, "N"-word-spewing racist but by one of the most respected African-American men in American business.

Like many women, I tweeted my outrage -- to Simmons, to friends, to the Twittersphere at large. But when the hashtag ceased to trend and a bemused and stunned Simmons had apologized, my outrage had not abated. It had escalated.

How could Simmons be surprised? Why did he only apologize to black women (although the offense no doubt hit hardest among those most historically disrespected women) and not to the entire country? And worse still, how could so many people shrug this off as no big deal? How was this not a topic on the national news but solely an Internet buzz?

Yet as one young African-American woman tweeted to me in response to my query about that, "it was just a couple of idiots doing a video," and "there were so many more important issues for people to address."

I disagreed with her.

I disagree.

For a few weeks prior to the "Harriet Tubman sex tape," a game has been up online called "Slap Hillary." You go on, and you get to slap an animated version of Hillary Clinton -- the former first lady, senator and Secretary of State and possibly the next president of the Untied States -- in the face.

As with the sex parody, the outrage has been relegated to the Internet and almost entirely to women.

What these two things have in common is programmatic, accepted, embraced violence against women. Harriet Tubman never acceded to sex with a slave master. Like all female slaves, if she had sex with a master, it was not of her volition. She wasn't smoking in bed with the man. She was a victim of the brutality of violence that was visited on female slaves for generations. The idea that it might be amusing to imagine Harriet Tubman in bed with one of those men is, well, perverse.

The tape, like the video game, didn't go up in minutes. This isn't, "Oh, look at the cute thing my baby/cat/dog/squirrel in the yard is doing. Let me upload it onto You Tube." These videos took planning. The sex tape video required actors, cameras, scripting, a director, distribution, money. "Slap Hillary" required artists, writers, producers, distribution, money.

The questions raised by the tape and also by the video game (which, unlike the sex tape, is still up) are simple and succinct: Why is violence against women a joke to men? Why is disrespecting female historical figures OK? Would a sex tape parody of Martin Luther King Jr. or a "Slap Obama" video be as "successful"? Or are we as a nation just so inculcated with disrespect for women and seeing them as figures to be sexually degraded and physically abused that it takes an orchestrated effort by women to call attention to a particularly egregious example, like the Harriet Tubman sex parody or the "Slap Hillary" game, to get people to think critically?

My girlhood was made better by knowing that Harriet Tubman existed, that a woman could risk her life, defy every conceivable odd to both save lives and make history. Seeing Hillary Clinton come so close to the nomination for president and watching her champion women and girls worldwide as well as stand up before the UN and say that "gay rights are human rights" in her role as Secretary of State has made me feel hopeful as an adult lesbian.

How dare men tear down the real-life work of these women and reduce it to violent parody? How dare Russell Simmons take an icon like Harriet Tubman and dirty her image for all those little girls like I was who desperately need to see her strength and power and survival? How dare people slap the former Secretary of State in the face over and over again and think it's funny?

Harriet Tubman changed my life in a way that I will never be able to adequately articulate. New icons for girls, Hillary Clinton among them, have risen up in the generation since I was a girl searching so hard for a brave, fearless woman who didn't need to wear a dress or have a man help her be courageous. But Harriet Tubman remains iconic in American history. Don't tear her down. Don't reduce her the way every other woman and girl of every race and class is reduced in this country to the sum of her sexual parts. Don't slap Hillary Clinton in the face the way women and girls are slapped every day just for being female. Just... don't. Don't fuck with Harriet Tubman, or with Hillary Clinton. Until men stop and think about how wrong it would be to put up the money for the video or the game, girls like I was will continue to be in desperate need of these icons, these women who stood up against all odds -- including their gender -- and took life on as defiantly and courageously as any man.