In August 2013, the newly launched YouTube channel, All Def Digital, posted a video entitled “The Harriet Tubman Sextape.” Reactions to the tape were swift and overwhelmingly negative. Decrying the desecration of the iconic Tubman and the positing of sexual transactions as a liberatory tool for enslaved black women, responses to the digital short shed light upon uncomfortable and complicated interpretations of the role of sex, sexuality, sexual economies, and sexual violence played in black lives during chattel slavery. Situating Tubman at the center of these dialogues offers an opportunity to pose new questions about the erotic life of slavery.
This essay is a call to explore and a foundational excavation of the sexual lives of black women during slavery, and more specifically, historical narratives of pleasure. Grappling with the erotic lives of black women during slavery offers a new lens with which to comprehend the lived experience of chattel slavery. Uncovering sensation, intimate interiority, and erotic experiences challenges a historiographical approach rooted in a twentieth century black liberation ethos and demands that we take seriously the erotic subjectivities of black women during slavery as part of an emancipatory politics. Using “The Tubman Sextape” as a point of entry, this essay examines how to create erotic maps of Tubman, and black women during slavery more broadly by engaging the historiography of slavery, popular representations of bondage, and emergent theories and conceptualizations of erotics.