Learning to Talk About Harriet Tubman

Russell Simmons may be a thick-skinned liberal, but most Americans still don't know how to talk about slavery

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Jonathan Ernst / REUTERS

Entrepreneur Russell Simmons talks to reporters as he arrives for the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner in Washington April 30, 2011.

Slavery and race are awkward and uncomfortable subjects for many Americans. As a result, we often find awkward and uncomfortable ways to talk about them. That was my conclusion earlier this week when, as a means of debuting his new channel All Def Digital, hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons posted a video parody titled, “Harriet Tubman’s Sex Tape.” In the video, the iconic “conductor” of the Underground Railroad is shown secretly recording sexual relations with her “Massa” in an attempt to blackmail him into allowing her to start her now famous freedom train. Almost as soon as it was released the three-minute video prompted a wave of condemnation and a Change.org petition. It wasn’t long before the NAACP asked Simmons to take it down. He offered an apology—”For all those I offended, I am sincerely sorry”—and removed the clip from his website.

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Simmons’s satirical approach represents one extreme. (“I’m a very liberal person with thick skin,” he explained.) On the other is the trend of introducing children to slavery with traumatic role-playing exercises. For example, in 2008, a middle school social studies teacher in suburban New York, who is white, bound the hands and feet of two black girls and instructed them to crawl underneath a desk to simulate the conditions of a crowded slave ship. In 2011, an elementary school student in Ohio described himself as having been “humiliated” after he was forced to play the role of a slave at a mock slave auction and his white classmates were urged to degrade him during the exercise. That same year in Virginia, the Washington Post reported that a fourth grade teacher also held a mock slave auction in her class and that the white children took turns buying the black and mixed-race children.

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It’s not just in school classrooms that this reality show approach to slavery is taking place.  At Connor Prairie Interactive History Park in Indiana, the public is asked to pay $20 to “Come face-to-face with slave hunters, see fear and hope in the eyes of a fellow runaway and… experience life as a fugitive slave during your journey through one of the most compelling periods in Indiana’s history. “ 60% of the visitors to the park are school children. According to a 2009 article from the Organization of American Historians’ Magazine of American History by historian Carl Weinberg, white visitors to the park often say they are getting quite a lot out of the experience of the reenactment, but it is not uncommon for African American visitors to feel uncomfortable about fully immersing themselves in the experience. Is this really a surprise to anyone?

Just for a moment, imagine if the holocaust was taught by either of these methods—a satire of Anne Frank, for example, trading sexual favors, or a fourth grade class of children being separated into jews and gentiles with the latter leading the former off to their death. It is hard to visualize either of those things happening. Slavery is the most profound mistake this country has ever made—”the great and foul stain upon the North America Union,” as John Quincy Adams said. We need to learn how to move past the awkwardness and talk with each other about it respectfully before we can laugh about it or relive the experience.

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