We were currency. Black people were literally used as money.
So when OneUnited Bank released a Harriet Tubman Visa card to celebrate Black History Month, I was baffled. It’s not just that the art is awkward, featuring Tubman doing the Wakanda salute or the love symbol in American Sign Language.
It’s that Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist who escaped slavery and freed slaves, a Black woman, the conductor of the Underground Railroad who risked her life again and again to save Black lives from being bought, sold, and brutalized, should never be the symbol of American capitalism.
As Black people, our ancestors were trafficked and considered less than human so slavery could cultivate America’s economy and help it become a superpower. So, no, I don’t want to see a Harriet “Moses” Tubman debit card.
I don’t care that the bank is Black-owned. When is the last time you used your debit card or cash and really inspected whose face was on it, and cared enough to learn more about their life, and who they were? Is this really homage at all?
Four years ago, when the US Treasury announced the $20 bill would be redesigned with Tubman’s portrait on the front and Andrew Jackson on the back, I was confused. It just didn’t feel right. And the since-stalled plan still stinks.
A slave owner who built his wealth on the backs of Black folk still gets to sit on the $20? She just joins him? This is not my version of justice or equity. The goal is not to join the oppressors. That is not equity.
I believe in representational justice. I want to see Harriet Tubman properly celebrated in American history, in Black history, in feminist history. But I cannot understand how buying services and products is respectful to her legacy. I cannot fathom how debit cards and straight cash, the very things still used today to buy humans, lifts the legacy of Tubman.
Black people built this country. Yet we were denied humanity, and, once we were free (some of our ancestors had to purchase their freedom), we were denied opportunity. Banks played a big role in disenfranchising us. Remember redlining? Banking had a role in financing cotton crops. Banks owned slaves. Banks still have racist loan practices. And Wall Street is financing private prisons. So, no, those days aren’t over. OneUnited is Black owned and not part of that history, but economic injustice is still one of our country’s major problems, dividing and debasing people.
I’ve not forgotten where I live, in Boston, where the median net worth for non-immigrant African-American households in the greater region is $8, according to “The Color of Wealth in Boston.” The 2015 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Duke University, and the New School didn’t get the numbers wrong: $8, not even enough to make it to the Tubman $20.
On average, Black women in the US are paid 39 percent less than white men and 21 percent less than white women. And the gap widens the more educated and successful we are. I don’t want a Black person, especially not a Black woman, and never Harriet Tubman on money.
Turning Tubman into currency, the very thing she escaped being, is not how we pay our respects. Memorials, murals, monuments? I’ll take them. Let’s see some movement on the Honoring Harriet Tubman Act, the bipartisan legislation introduced by Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney, a New York Democrat, last summer to place a statue of Tubman in the US Capitol.
Tune in to “Harriet,” the film that took more than 25 years to make from the time Gregory Allen Howard was hired to write the screenplay — you know the film a Hollywood exec once thought Julia Roberts should star in as Tubman?
But putting Tubman’s face on money won’t fix that type of ignorance or systemic racism.
We need to do better by Tubman. Honor her by honoring humanity, by standing up for others, by truly celebrating her legacy. But our faces on money? That is not our North Star to freedom.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the type of card with Harriet Tubman’s image. It is a debit card. The Globe regrets the error.