You aint funny or cutting edge: A letter to Jason Horton

Dear Jason  (@Jason_Horton), AKA “the world’s only white male comedian”; AKA the man who played the slave master rapist in ‘Harriet Tubman Sex Tape.’

How does it feel to be part of one the most vile videos I have seen in a long time.  Spare me your explanations about comedy and satire.  You participation (your role) and the video itself are all about as funny as Paula Deen and Rush Limbaugh.  Your Los Angeles address and hipster jeans don’t mean anything to me.  I cannot see into your heart, but your “work” tells me something. I see a video that perpetuates racism, sexism, and violence.  It traffics in dehumanizing images, finding pleasure in other’s pain. I see you and your partners in moral crime (Simmons and others who made this video deserve plenty of criticism and condemnation – go here and here and take a read and then come back to reflect on your own responsibilities) as merely recycling  ideas that have for centuries justified black suffering, sexual violence directed at black women, and enslavement.

I know the satire argument is coming, but it’s not funny, it’s not satire (what are you satirizing? toward what end?) and if you think that is funny, what does that say.  What does it say that you were willing to be a piece  that feels like a remake of Birth of a Nation.  This slavery porn pathologizes black bodies, renders them as objects of ridicule and violence.

Jason, you once noted “I also grew up in the punk rock/hardcore rebellious culture. I really have a similar mentality when it comes to comedy. I think comedy should be dangerous.” What is dangerous about reinforcing many centuries of white supremacy?  What is dangerous in perpetuating stereotypes about oversexed black women seducing their white masters?  What is dangerous in profiting and relishing off black death?  Stereotypes?

You seem very invested in positioning yourself as cutting edge, as new, and as hip?  Congratulations, you just participated in a video that would make D.W. Griffith proud.  You just acted in video that seems to have taken cues from some of America’s most racist forms of popular culture.  Cutting edge is not 19th century minstrelsy.  Is that what you call hip? Is that what cutting edge looks like to you?  In your eyes, would Thomas Dixon be a cutting edge writer; would bull connor be a cutting edge police man; George Wallace an edgy politician; would Henry Ford be a cutting edge business man?

I imagine you think this video is funny – what is funny about slavery, about rape, about the thousands of black men and women, beaten, brutalized, and enslaved at the hands of people who look you and me.  I predict that you think it’s just a “joke,” but maybe that’s because the “joke” isn’t about you, isn’t about your family and community.

The mere idea that anyone could find humor here is the ultimate expression of privilege – male privilege, white privilege.  Is it easy to reenact rape, to mock black suffering and death, from a distance?  How can you not feel the anguish and pain resulting from your participation and that pain is not just in history but evident today?

Can you name 5 things about Tubman (or even slavery); maybe if you spent less time making infantile YouTube videos and more time reading, you would have known better.  But your lack of knowledge aint my concern. Your participation in this video is reprehensible; your participation is a sign of disrespect and ignorance about Harriet Tubman; you have spit on her life and legacy, her struggle for freedom and justice.

In case you get some time, I encourage you to read about Tubman, about slavery, and about the history of rape and lynchings.  Trying something else cutting edge – intelligence, knowledge.  Try studying and you might learn about the history of black resistance in the face of white supremacy in all its forms. As I am not sure if you will open a book, at least read this brief summary of Tubman’s life from @prisonculture

Araminta Ross (Harriet Tubman) became a “slave for hire” at the age of 5. She did domestic work, field work, cared for children…She once said that one of her mistresses would savagely whip her almost every day, first thing in the AM. When she was teenager, she stood before an overseer who was in pursuit of another slave. He took a lead weight & crashed it on her head. She was deeply wounded. She said that the blow “broke her skull.” She was carried back bleeding. She had no bed. They lay her on the floor. She was sent back to her parents who thought she would die. She survived. She went on to become Harriet Tubman. She freed slaves daringly & without fear. This is the person who @UncleRUSH laughed.

That is the person you mocked; that is the person you disparaged; that is the person whose community you enacted violence on today; that is the person you pretended to rape.  Read it again. Learn about the “Moses of her people”

You have said very little since the release of your historic porn. But I can hear the defense of this video and its participants.

Ignorance is not a defense.  And “I am sorry if I hurt your feelings” is not an apology.   The ability to be ignorant, to be unaware of the history and consequences of racial bigotry, and misogyny, to simply do as one pleases, is a quintessential definition of privilege.  The ability to disparage, to demonize, to ridicule, and to engage in racially hurtful practices from the comfort of one’s YouTube channel, from one’s segregated neighborhood, from one’s hipster enclave reflects both privilege and power. If you refuse to see, think, or feel outside your own experiences you are merely cashing in on those privileges.  At whose expense?

The ability to blame others for being oversensitive, for playing the race card, or for making much ado about nothing are privileges codified structurally and culturally.  Jokes about slavery, about sexual violence, about rape, about a history of white supremacy, about Harriett Tubman, are never a neutral form of entertainment, but loaded sites for the production of damaging stereotypes and violent images.

How about you take some responsibility and condemn yourself for being part of this video; now that would be cutting edge?


Post Script – In addition to the articles above, I encourage any to read Kimberly Foster’s Twitter timeline, this piece by Jamilah King, and this from K Lynn Dreher

Please also read this important contextual piece at Feminist Wire.

Apologies for few typos/errors in original post and getting Mr Horton’s first name wrong.  Should be all corrected now

Adidas and the Truth About ‘Slavery Sneakers’ – News & Views – EBONY

Adidas and the Truth About ‘Slavery Sneakers’

David Leonard

Adidas’ planned release of its “JS Roundhouse Mids” shoes has been put on hold, but the rightful outrage continues.

The sight of “slave shoes”—sneakers with shackles and chains—prompted widespread indignation and outrage. “The attempt to commercialize and make popular more than 200 years of human degradation, where Blacks were considered three-fifths human by our Constitution is offensive, appalling and insensitive. Removing the chains from our ankles and placing them on our shoes is no progress,” writes Jesse Jackson. “For Adidas to promote the athleticism and contributions of a variety of African-American sports legends … and then allow such a degrading symbol of African-American history to pass through its corporate channels and move toward actual production and advertisement, is insensitive and corporately irresponsible.”

The shoes are yet another reminder of the efforts to sanitize and erase slavery from public consciousness. Whether in the efforts to whitewash history through denying or minimizing the history of slavery, or turning slavery into sources of profit and pleasure, the shoes speak to an effort to reimagine slavery within White America. Whereas the history of slavery is one of violence, bloodshed, and survival in the face of brutality, these shoes disrespect the memories and atrocities at the heart of this country. In turning its symbols – shackles and chains – into something of trendy desire and pleasure, these shoes and its designers not only spit on this history but seek to cash in on the pain and suffering of many people.

The marketing of the shoes also disturbingly capitalize on incidences of shoe violence and media sensationalism. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “On Adidas’ Facebook page, the company calls the shoe ‘so hot you [will need to] lock your kicks to your ankles.’” Like those pundits, politicians, and media who sold fear by citing kids being murdered for their shoes, Adidas sees an opportunity in exaggerated stories of death. By telling its consumers that “yes others will desperately want your shoes but not to worry, they are on lockdown,” the company is selling consumers a footwear version of LoJack. As with the politicians and media pundits before them, Adidas is continuing a tradition of peddling and proofing off of racial fears and stereotypes.

As the history of shoe production has been one of exploitation, abuse and “slave-like” conditions, there is sickening irony in these shoes. Do the shackles and chains attached to the shoes mirror those that have been found on children’s feet? Does it symbolically reflect the sweatshop conditions endured by those who produce shoes and apparel throughout the globe?

Continue reading @ Adidas and the Truth About ‘Slavery Sneakers’ – News & Views – EBONY.

Social Justice: Class Projects

Do you know where the ingredients come from? Do you know the work conditions that produce these ingredients. Check out the projects from students in my class.  They set out to examine the commodity origin stories of several popular items, breaking down and documenting the origins/conditions of a myriad of products.  Check out their excellent and thoughtful work

Mocha-Vanilla Latte

Chocolate Chip cookies

Valentine’s Day

Under the Christmas tree


Fruit Salad

Hamburger and Milkshake

Hot Fudge Sundae



NewBlackMan: Could Dr. King Watch Big Time College Sports?

Could Dr. King Watch Big Time College Sports? Race Beyond Shame

by David Leonard and C. Richard King | NewBlackMan

In “Shame of College Sports,” legendary American historian Taylor Branch turns his college sports in this month’s The Atlantic. Focusing on the profits generated through college sports, the lack of power available to student-athletes, and the absurdity to claims of amateurism and student-athletes, Branch exposes the exploitation and hypocrisy that is as much part of the NCAA experience as March Madness and Bowl Games. Almost hoping to disarm critics who often scoff at ‘slavery analogies,’ Brand avoids that comparison instead embracing one that centers on colonialism.

Slavery analogies should be used carefully. College athletes are not slaves. Yet to survey the scene—corporations and universities enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men, whose status as “student-athletes” deprives them of the right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution—is to catch an unmistakable whiff of the plantation. Perhaps a more apt metaphor is colonialism: college sports, as overseen by the NCAA, is a system imposed by well-meaning paternalists and rationalized with hoary sentiments about caring for the well-being of the colonized. But it is, nonetheless, unjust. The NCAA, in its zealous defense of bogus principles, sometimes destroys the dreams of innocent young athletes.

Providing readers with an amazing history, including the origins of the term student-athlete (as part of a systematic effort to avoid paying workers’ compensation claims for injured football players) and illustrating the methods used by NCAA and its partner schools to maintain the illusion of amateur sports all while raking in the dough, Branch surprisingly avoids the issue of race. The colonial analogy notwithstanding, there is virtually no discussion of the racial implications in this system, the larger history of the NCAA in relationship to race, and the ways in which white racial frames help to justify an acceptance of such a system.

Branch seems to point to the racial implications here in a section entitled, ““The Plantation Mentality,” where he quotes Sonny Vaccaro:

“Ninety percent of the NCAA revenue is produced by 1 percent of the athletes,” Sonny Vaccaro says. “Go to the skill positions”—the stars. “Ninety percent African Americans.” The NCAA made its money off those kids, and so did he. They were not all bad people, the NCAA officials, but they were blind, Vaccaro believes. “Their organization is a fraud.”

The reference to the “Plantation mentality” and the explicit acknowledgement that the bulk of profits are generated within sports that in recent years have been dominated by African American athletes generates surprisingly little discussion of the radicalized political economy of college athletics today. Over a decade ago, D. Stanley Eitzen observed

These rules reek with injustice. Athletes can make money for others, but not for themselves. Their coaches have agents, as many students engaged in other extracurricular activities, but the athletes cannot. Athletes are forbidden to engage in advertising, but their coaches are permitted to endorse products for generous compensation. Corporate advertisements are displayed in the arenas where they play, but with no payoff to the athletes. The shoes and equipment worn by the athletes bear very visible corporate logos, for which the schools are compensated handsomely. The athletes make public appearances for their schools and their photographs are used to publicize the athletic department and sell tickets, but they cannot benefit. The schools sell memorabilia and paraphernalia that incorporate the athletes’ likenesses, yet only the schools pocket the royalties. The athletes cannot receive gifts, but coaches and other athletic department personnel receive the free use of automobiles, country club memberships, housing subsidies, etc.

To our minds, then, Branch clearly misses an opportunity to reflect on the ways in which the system is built around generating profits through the labor of young African American men. Those profits – the billions of dollars earned through television contracts, merchandizing, video game deals, concessions, booster donations, ticket sales – find there way into the hands of overwhelming white constituency, coaches and athletic directors, in support of a largely white establishment.

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan: Could Dr. King Watch Big Time College Sports?.

Real Men?: Sports, Slavery, and Sex Trafficking

August 24, 2011 (Originally Published at NewBlackMan: Real Men?: Sports, Slavery, and Sex Trafficking.)

Real Men?: Sports, Slavery, and Sex Trafficking

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

In the midst of the NFL lockout, Adrian Peterson joined a chorus of players who were both critical of the league’s owners and commissioner Roger Goodell, describing professional football as akin to “modern-day slavery”:

People kind of laugh at that, but there are people working at regular jobs who get treated the same way, too. With all the money … the owners are trying to get a different percentage, and bring in more money. I understand that; these are business-minded people. Of course this is what they are going to want to do. I understand that; it’s how they got to where they are now. But as players, we have to stand our ground and say, ‘Hey — without us, there’s no football.’ There are so many different perspectives from different players, and obviously we’re not all on the same page — I don’t know. I don’t really see this going to where we’ll be without football for a long time; there’s too much money lost for the owners. Eventually, I feel that we’ll get something done.

Although not the first person to use the slavery analogy, with William C. Rhoden, Larry Johnson, and Warren Sapp all offering this rhetorical comparison, his comments elicited widespread commendation and criticism.  Dave Zirin notes that he was denounced as “ungrateful,” “out of touch,” “an idiot” and, in the darker recesses of the blogosphere, far worse.”   Like much of sports media, the controversy quickly reached a zenith with columnists and fans ultimately focusing on other issues, spectacles, and controversies, although never forgetting his insertion of race into the world of sports.

Recently, however, an ESPN columnist brought a spotlight back onto his comments, celebrating Peterson’s determination to right his rhetorical wrongs.  In “Adrian Peterson continues righting a wrong” Kevin Seifert cites not only Peterson’s efforts to apologize for his “unfortunate analogy,” but his decision to get involved with anti-slavery efforts as part of a larger effort to make amends.  “If some good came of Adrian Peterson’s unfortunate use of analogies this offseason, it’s this: It forced one of the NFL’s highest-profile players into a bond with two of the world’s most prominent advocates for ending human trafficking.”

Citing his involvement with Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher’s DNA Foundation, a group committed to “rais[ing] awareness about child sex slavery, chang[ing] the cultural stereotypes that facilitate this horrific problem, and rehabilitat[ing] innocent victims,” Seifert argues that Peterson missed-used analogy reflected a lack of knowledge about human trafficking.  “As a professional and respectful public figure,” Peterson would never knowingly make such a silly and harmful comparison had he known about the realities of human trafficking and child sex slavery.  At least that seems to be the argument emanating from this piece. “I’ve always believed that Peterson wasn’t making any sort of political statement,” writes Seifert, whose column about Peterson’s comments brought up the real-life circumstances of modern-day slavery.  “There was no reason to think he harbored some previously unexpressed level of insensitivity. Like many of us, he probably just didn’t know that in 2010, 12.3 million people world-wide were in forced or bonded labor. To that end, Peterson jumped at the chance to work with Moore and Kutcher.”

Seifert’s celebration of Peterson’s PSA is questionable given his efforts to cite this as evidence of his efforts to do penance along the path to redemption. At one level, it is unclear if the PSA was in actuality a response to the controversy surrounding the comments (the interview took place in March and the PSA filming taking place shortly thereafter in April).   At another level, and more importantly, Peterson had nothing to apologize for, and therefore his involvement with an organization committed to thwarting modern-day slave sex trafficking has nothing to do with his past comments about the NFL.

The relative silence of the media regarding his PSA, especially in comparison to the ubiquitous level of criticism that he experienced for deploying “the S-word” (Zirin), demonstrates that irrespective of his actions it will be difficult for him to secure redemption in the eyes of mainstream America.  Richard King and I wrote about the precarious path to redemption experienced by many black athletes in wake of controversies in “Lack of Black Opps: Kobe Bryant and the Difficult Path of Redemption” (Journal of Sport and Social Issues).  There we argue,

The media and public fascinations with Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, and other Black athletes accused of personal and/or criminal transgressions should remind us of what a prominent place race, redemption, and respectability play in sport today. Sport media not only rely on the White racial frame but also play a leading role in its repro­duction. In this frame, Blackness has overdetermined the actions of African American athletes from O. J. Simpson, Mick Tyson, and Barry Bonds to Ron Artest, Shani Davis, and more recently Marion Jones, Michael Vick, Santonio Holmes and Tiger Woods, creating a context in which interpretations and outcomes for Black and White athletes vary greatly. . . . Yet what is clear is in spite of the celebration of the comeback stories of Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, or even Michael Vick, their Blackness, and the broader signifi­cations associated with their Black bodies contains and limits their public rehabilita­tion. Just as their Blackness continues to confine the meaning of their bodies inside and outside of the sports world, their past “mistakes” and “misfortunes” (as Black men) cannot be outrun, out maneuvered, and even controlled.

In other words, while recognizing the unfairness in demanding redemption from Peterson for comments about exploitation and abuse through a deployed slavery analogy, he faces a difficult challenge given the ways in which race and the associated tropes of the “ungrateful,” and “militant” black athlete governs over Peterson in wake of these comments.  Yet, the specific nature of the PSA itself lends itself toward some sort of redemption.

Peterson appears in a PSA as part of DNA’s “Real Men” campaign, which includes spots from Bradley Cooper (“Real men know to make a meal”), Sean Penn (“Real Men know how to use an Iron”) and Jamie Foxx (“Real Men know how to use the remote.”)  In his PSA, Peterson is sitting in a living room befitting of a member of the aristocracy (or at least the American upper-class).  Confirming his class status and respectability, Peterson simultaneously represents an authentic manhood, able to start a fire by merely rubbing his hands together.  Unlike other men, Peterson embodies a true and enviable manhood, evident in his physical prowess and his economic prowess.  In this regard, his blackness is muted by a desired class- and gender-based identity.

Peterson’s represented identity is an important backdrop for both his purported redemption resulting from his participation in this campaign and the PSA itself.  The narrative argument offered within the campaign is that “real men don’t buy girls,” and that “real men” don’t participate in “child sex slavery.”  Peterson, as a man who can start a fire with his bare hands, and who is economically successful (not to mention someone who make defenders look silly) is already a real man within a hegemonic frame; his stance against sex slavery is but another signifier of a real masculinity, all of which is constructed as important attracting women.  The PSA ends with a young woman asking, “Are you a real man,” followed by a clear reminder: “I prefer a real man.”   At this level, the PSA is disturbing in that it tells viewers to oppose childhood sex slavery because that is what real men do and because women of age find such a stance attractive.

In a world where 12 million people are enslaved and where 2 million children are bought into the global sex trade, it is rather simplistic (and comforting) to reduce this injustice to a faulty masculinity.  Given that sex trafficking, according to the United Nations, involves “127 countries of origin, 98 transit countries and 137 destination countries” it is rather dubious to reduce the problem to a single construction of bad masculinity.

And to be clear, this isn’t just ELSEWHERE, with between 100,000 and 300,000 girls sold into sex slavery yearly, with many more “at risk of being sexually exploited for commercial uses.”  Whether in the U.S. or elsewhere, the existence of child human sex trafficking reflects patriarchy and the dehumanizing ideologies that govern society.

Catherine MacKinnon makes this clear in her analysis of global sex trafficking:

If women were human, would we be a cash crop shipped from Thailand in containers into New York’s brothels? Would we be sexual and reproductive slaves? Would we be bred, worked without pay our whole lives, burned when our dowry money wasn’t enough or when men tired of us, starved as widows when our husbands died (if we survived his funeral pyre)?

She notes further the links between sexual violence, heterosexism, and dominant notions of masculinity

Male dominance is sexual. Meaning: men in particular, if not men alone, sexualize hierarchy… Recent feminist work… on rape, battery, sexual harassment, sexual abuse of children, prostitution, and pornography supports [this]. These practices, taken together, express and actualize the distinctive power of men over women in society; their effective permissibility confirms and extends it.” (In Dunlap)

The links between sex trafficking and patriarchy and misogyny, along with racism, xenophobia, and global geo-politics is further illustrated by comments offered during a NGO forum, which among other things dispels arguments about “bad apples,” individual pathologies, and “real/unreal” men:

Trafficking in persons is a form of racism that is recognized as a contemporary form of slavery and is aggravated by the increase in racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. The demand side in trafficking is created by a globalized market, and a patriarchal notion of sexuality. Trafficking happens within and across borders, largely in conjunction with prostitution (In Agathangelous and Ling).

In other words, “real manhood,” as codified legally, as defined culturally, and as constructed ideologically not only sanctions sexual violence but also promotes its very existence.  Child sex trafficking reflects the logic of hegemonic masculinity.  While comforting to imagine the problem of child sex trafficking as an aberrant and abhorrent masculinity, this injustice has nothing to do with real or a desirable manhood. It is about power, hierarchies, and the systemic dehumanization of women, particularly women of color.

The problem of slavery is real and reflects the systemic and historic manifestations of sexism (along with racism and colonization).  To imagine this as a problem of a faulty masculinity does not work to eradicate the problem. While I certainly applaud the efforts of DNA, and celebrated Peterson’s involvement with a campaign committed to raising awareness about the painful realities of human trafficking, the narrative leads us back to the same place.

Taking a stand against child sex trafficking and other forms of sexual violence reflects a willingness to embrace a feminist ethos, not one of “a real man.”  The struggle against sexual violence, whether it be rape or sex trafficking, should not be about redeeming and celebrating REAL men, Adrian Peterson, Justin Timberlake (who shaves with a chain saw), or anyone else, but challenging the injustices that result from hegemonic patriarchy.  How about we make a PSA about real resistance and real transformation rather than real men!

From NewBlackMan: Real Men?: Sports, Slavery, and Sex Trafficking.