This won’t be long.
I was in an African American history class my freshman year at Medgar Evers College, and (in a stroke that seemed pedagogically doomed from the start) my professor blurted out,
“Jesus Christ is a bastard, and his mother Mary is a whore.”
Everyone gasped, and then a hush fell over the class that felt about as comfortable as nausea caused by the kind of rotting crap you’re likely to find in a certain writer’s sink when he’s caught in a days-long writing session. After a while, some of the less conservative among us asked, almost in unison,
“Wait, what the f*ck did he just say!?”
He repeated himself and stood reveling in the reaction with a “herein lies the lesson” kind of expression on his face. And what was the lesson? Just because you can say something doesn’t necessarily mean you should. For those of us who make our living with words, it makes a certain sense. I was no fan of censorship, always been apt to do my own thing in my own way, so I got the point. I thought back to the first time I cussed. (I was walking home from school, and my friend Elvis dared me to say it. I did, and nothing happened. Something to do with the fact that my only audience was a seasoned “cussbud.” Elvis. Audience matters.)
So anyway, I’m returning to the Twitter after a couple days of sloth and self-indulgence, only to find that there’s a “Harriet Tubman Sextape” on the All Def Digital YouTube Network endorsed by Russell Simmons as one of the funniest things he ever saw.
Jesus be a fence!
Now, you may say it was satire. It was a rhetorical strategy, a ruse of misdirection to get folk talking about something other than the launch of your digital channel (offering no link, sorry). You may say you were just being a gadfly, that it was intended to spur vigorous racial discourse, using humor, for a nation jaded by its history and its contemporary fits and starts and failures to sustain a meaningful discussion down from the rarified air of institutions and the intelligentsia–black or otherwise. You may even go so far as to invoke Ellison in your defense, who wrote in Shadow and Act,
Very often…the Negro’s masking is motivated not so much by fear as by a profound rejection of the image created to usurp his identity…. [It] is in the American grain. Benjamin Franklin, the practical scientist, skilled statesman and sophisticated lover, allowed the French to mistake him for Rousseau’s Natural Man. Hemingway poses as a non-literary sportsman, Faulkner a farmer; Abe Lincoln allowed himself to be taken for a simple country lawyer—until the chips were down. America is a land of masking jokers. We wear the mask for purposes of aggression as well as for defense, when we are projecting the future and preserving the past. In short, the motives hidden behind the mask are as numerous as the ambiguities the mask conceals. (55)
You may do those things, but then you’d have to find some way to further substantiate your motives, particularly if you’re called upon do so (say, like now, when people like me react with outrage to the “joke”). If not, you’re likely to have your audience–intended, extended, whatever–view your act as one of terrorism. (And, make no mistake, I consider any act that is intended to demean the very soul and struggle of a people an act of terrorism.) Hell, you don’t even need to apologize, especially if you feel justified. But some clarity about your motives would certainly help. Some of us aren’t as sharp and require some explanation about what you were trying to achieve when you chose to turn the need for freedom into a shadowy slutwalk, replete with f*ck talk and hijinks. Race is hard to navigate, and some of us avoid it. So you gotta say something that’ll help us understand what you were really trying to do.
Hey, don’t get me wrong. I get it. You can’t please everyone, as the saying goes, right? And given that there’s an inherent selection process that helps you determine who your audience is going to be, and a similar process that helps audiences determine (Taxi Driver-like) if you talking to them, I know I could simply discard what I consider idiotic or offensive or blasphemous (according to the degree of the insult) and just keep it moving. I don’t want to.
So I wonder: who in the hell are you talking to when you endorsed a Harriet Tubman sex tape? If not me, a black body still reading the effects of a legacy like tea leaves and chicken bones, then who? There had to have been a point to it, right? For whom is rape a joke, other than rapists and the otherwise depraved? For whom is the implication funny that sex was her preferred currency, or that her body was barter for the freedom of other bodies, the implication that she was just pretending not to enjoy the repeated sexual torture as more than a violation? For whom is terror and terrorism funny? Who among your card-carriers, viewers, listeners, or readers, considers the trauma of slavery, the need to escape it, and the persistent risk of being hobbled, bitted, whipped, shot, lynched (by rope or flame or both before and after you die) something that, framed as a joke, could elicit something more than consternation and disgust? What is there to gain from this sacrilege?
Yes, sacrilege. That’s what you do when you insult a prophet. And I know what you’d say, too. Harriet Tubman is not above critique. What makes her so elevated that she assumes the role of prophet for African Americans or anyone, for that matter? Well, that’s kind of my point. You know, the whole “mother is the name for god on the lips of children” thing? That.
But when the “apology” came, it was, as my friend @hystericalblkns put it so succinctly, “pure fuckery.” Yeah. F*ckery doesn’t really come much purer than that. I’d like to say that I was unmoved by the apology–unconvinced by its patent arrogance and disingenuousness, the abject lack of remorse. I wasn’t.
You see, there’s a critical difference between saying, “I’m sorry I hurt you” and saying, “I’m sorry you feel hurt by what I’ve done.” The former suggests remorse, while the latter simply does not. If anything, it compounds the insult by letting the injured party know that you’re really not sorry for what you’ve done, and that the problem is really with them and their perception of what you’ve done. It’s a tactic common to politicians, preachers, and regular people. We know you ain’t sorry. You ain’t even sorry you ain’t sorry.
And when you say that your “buddies at the NAACP” ask you to remove the video, that’s like tweeting,
I really think rape is funny. She was asking for it. #confessyourunpopularopinion.
Even idiocy deserves a comment. So here’s mine: In the Caribbean, we have a saying.
Joke is joke, but damn joke eh no joke.
As in, that ain’t no damn joke to tell, or what kinda damn joke is that? Or, as in this case, that “joke” is damned.