Harriet Tubman on a Debit Card: A Tribute or a Gaffe?

Harriet Tubman was to be commemorated by appearing on the $20 bill in a design that would have been unveiled this year, but the treasury secretary said in May that plans for the bill would be delayed until after President Trump left office.

Enter OneUnited Bank, which this month revealed it was honoring the abolitionist in its own way — by featuring her on a debit card.

The backlash was almost instant, and it was difficult to pinpoint what offended people more: Was it her crossed arms that resembled the “Wakanda Forever” salute from the movie “Black Panther”? Was it the combination of a gold chip above her right shoulder and the Visa logo on the left? Maybe it was the whole thing.

Regardless, OneUnited, the nation’s largest black-owned bank, soon found itself the target of jokes and jabs after announcing the card design on Thursday.

Social media users accused the bank of pandering, while others pointed out the disconnect of featuring a former slave on a monetary device like a debit card.

“‘Bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than Harriet Tubman hitting the Wakanda salute on debit cards,’” one Twitter user posted.

Another wrote, “It’s amazing how differently the idea of Harriet Tubman on U.S. legal tender feels than putting her face on a debit card.”

Teri Williams, the bank’s president and chief operating officer, said in a statement that it put Tubman on the card in celebration of Black History Month. “This symbol of Black empowerment in 2020 will pave the way for the Harriet Tubman design on the $20 bill,” she said.

The card’s image comes from the painting “The Conqueror” by the artist Addonis Parker, the bank said. On Twitter, it explained Tubman’s crossed-arms gesture was the sign language symbol for love.

“Harriet Tubman is the ultimate symbol of love — love that causes you to sacrifice everything, including your own life,” the bank said.

Those who saw echoes of “Black Panther” in Tubman’s gesture were not far-off.

In 2018, the film’s director, Ryan Coogler, revealed that the “Wakanda Forever” salute comes from Egyptian pharaohs and West African sculptures, as well as the words “love” and “hug” in American Sign Language.

On Sunday, Mr. Parker said he moved the gesture higher in the card’s image to keep it visible.

Ms. Williams said in an interview on Sunday that she understood and respected the reactions the card has drawn, but that OneUnited had the power to push for Tubman to appear on the $20 bill. She said the bank had also received messages of support.

“Even though it’s symbolic, it matters,” she said, adding that it boiled down to: “Why is it that only white people are on money? Why is that?”

The Tubman card is the one bank customers had selected the most since Thursday, she said, declining to give specific figures.

The card was the ninth in a series that began in 2016, featuring what Ms. Williams said were “unapologetically Black” figures. The bank said using the images was a way to “make a statement that #BlackMoneyMatters with every dollar” spent.

The goal of OneUnited, which has its headquarters in Boston, is to use banking for the benefit of black people, Ms. Williams said.

Tubman was against the dehumanizing capitalism that was practiced in America, but “she recognized the value of economic empowerment for security,” Ms. Williams said.

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