Many were disgusted by the 2013 release of the "Harriet Tubman Sex Tape," but Kimerly Cornish didn't stop at disgust.
Instead, the Cambridge, Maryland-based scholar and Tubman descendant found in the quickly pulled YouTube video inspiration for a line of inquiry: How do people today see Harriet Tubman?
Cornish will present her research into modern representations of Tubman Wednesday, Jan. 28, at the Thompson Memorial AME Zion Church — the same Auburn church that counted the famed abolitionist among its congregation, and hosted her funeral services in 1913.
Forming the basis for Cornish' research isn't just the "Sex Tape," but also the Feb. 1, 2014 Google Doodle depicting Tubman, her wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Washington, D.C., Alison Saar's Harlem statue of Tubman, and artist Michael Paul Britto's video works. One piece casts Tubman as a Pam Grier-esque blaxploitation heroine, another as a stand-in for Britney Spears in a decidedly more literal interpretation of "I'm a Slave 4 U."
What all the works have in common, Cornish said, is a shift away from Tubman's true nature — the "Sex Tape" perhaps being the worst offender.
The video, presented as a comedy, depicts Tubman having sex with a slave-owner and secretly recording it as blackmail leverage. Along with the content, the timing of its release on rap and fashion magnate Russell Simmons' All Def Digital YouTube channel was also concerning to Cornish. As the centennial of her death, 2013 was a time of celebration of Tubman and her efforts, the scholar said.
"That was an incredibly cynical attempt to exploit a very important anniversary," she said. "Really, what they were doing was taking the Harriet Tubman name and exploiting it."
Cornish didn't find the Tubman Google Doodle problematic in and of itself, but one famous reaction to it triggered the same alarm as the "Sex Tape." Commenting on Instagram in response to the picture, actor Nick Cannon said, "Really Google??? This is the way we are kicking off Black History Month. #UndergroundSearchEngine #WhoApprovedThis #WhySheRockingALouieVscarf #AmIJustBeingSensitive #FeelingSomeTypeOfWay #RacistMuch."
Cornish pointed out that the scarf Cannon objected to was, in fact, aesthetically accurate. Its quatrefoil pattern, though popularized by Louis Vuitton, dates back to Tubman's time, Cornish said.
Both the "Sex Tape" and Cannon's reaction to the Google Doodle represented to Cornish the same problematic thought process: That, perhaps because America has its first black president in Barack Obama, perhaps because today's generation will do anything to get a laugh on social media, America has reached a point in its racial landscape where the revered Tubman is now fair game for irreverent humor.
"Somehow it became OK to make fun of Harriet Tubman at some level, or to think that something as frivolous as a luxury scarf is being mapped onto Harriet Tubman's body," she said. "These people don't realize what they're doing ... it makes it OK for other people who'd say these things. 'If a black person says it, it's OK.'"
With President Obama's December signature establishing the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park near Cambridge, Cornish feels an added urgency to her work to unravel modern representations of her ancestor and thereby strengthen the public's grasp of who Tubman was, and the good work she did.
"From the time I was very little she looked like what she looked like to me, but there was a component of this larger-than-life person," Cornish said. "We need to challenge and ask ourselves: Do we really know what we know? Or is it a version of something?"