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The pop cultural trials of Harriet Tubman

A statue of Harriet Tubman is erected in Harlem in 2007. (Flickr/illdoggie2)
For a man who’s had his finger on the pulse of pop culture for over thirty  years - and in the process become almost as rich as Croesus (or Jay Z) - Russell Simons proved postively tone deaf when he put out the “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape.”

Or not.

The sketch came out earlier this month, via Simmons’ new YouTube channel All Def Digital, a project that until then had been flying largely under the radar. Its premise is as absurd as it is anachronistic: The famed American abolitionist, seeking funds for her underground railroad, tries to blackmail her master by secretly videotaping them having sex together.

Horrified critics went to town on Simmons, suggesting he was abusing the image of an American idol while promoting rape culture. Tubman’s ancestors joined the chorus demanding Simmons apologize and remove the video.

Simmons complied. Now, he’s talking about making a biopic of Tubman. And as self-serving and ridiculous as that  might sound,I actually think it’s a good idea. Granted, Simmons may not be the best man for the job - the reaction to the Def Jam video makes clear the lines we draw around how we talk about the past - and who gets to speak, or even make fun. But he’s not the first to do Tubman as comedy. That’s actually been a bit of a trend recently.

Tubman’s been portrayed as a Black Moses Barbie and serenaded as The Sexiest Abolitionist. In one of a series of sketches satirizing Black History Month, comedians Key and Peele imagine Tubman as “the original free runner,” who helps runaway slaves escape through a series of parkour moves. And on the last season of 30 Rock, Tracy Jordan tries to make a biopic of Tubman, only to be foiled by his lead, the actress Octavia Spencer, who redecorates his set in sixties modern style because she’s not “down with the whole cabin vibe” and doesn’t like Tubman’s name because “it sounds like a dude. Let’s change it to Tubgirl.”

Like the Def Jam sketch, the humor of these parodies is in their portayal of a Tubman wildly and wilfully at odds with her historic deeds. But what separates them from the dreck Simmons put out is instead of just sending up Tubman, the 30 Rock sketch and others skewer contemporary culture. I mean, what could this moment do with the woman who led hundreds of slaves to freedom and soldiers into battle for the Union other than turn her into an action movie heroine or reality TV show star?

That’s not such a bad thing: Pop cultural depictions of Tubman, even comedic ones, can be as effective and respectful a way to honor her legacy as memorials or state parks. And a comedy sketch is a lot more accessible. The problem isn’t the portrayals per se, but that there are so few of them, well-done or otherwise. We celebrate Tubman as an American icon with an incredible (some say “bad ass”)  story. But there’s not one serious biopic about her (other than a 1978 made-for-TV movie starring Cicely Tyson).

I don’t believe, as some critics suggest, that’s simply because we’ve forgotten Tubman. I think we haven’t quite figured out how to fit her -  or this period of American history - into contemporary culture. That uneasy fit may explain these attempts at comedy - isn’t laughter a way to confront or at least start talking about the things that make us uncomfortable, the things we’d rather forget? That was certainly the case with Django Unchained, a film both reviled and championed that also got people talking about American slavery again.

That’s one of the best powers of popular culture: Be it respectful or irreverent, salacious or studious, it has the potential to re-activate events that while still significant historically, may have lost some of their cultural force or relevance. And if the Def Jam sketch crossed the line or came “too soon” (a premise that feels both odd and bittersweet in the year we mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation), there’s plenty more where it came from. A veritable slew of films and tv shows about slavery come out this year.

Alison Cuddy is WBEZ’s Arts and Culture reporter and co-host of Changing Channels, a podcast about the future of television. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

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