Harriet Tubman Debit Card: Marketing Genius or Faux Pas?

In 2019, it was announced that the famed abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, would be commemorated by appearing on the $20 bill in a design that would have been unveiled in 2020. However, Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, recently announced that plans for the bill will be delayed. The unveiling had been timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. Mnuchin said the design process has been delayed and no new imagery will be unveiled until 2028.

As a response to this delay, OneUnited Bank, the largest black-owned bank in the US, released a limited-edition Visa debit card to celebrate Black History Month. Depicted on the card is Harriet Tubman with her arms crossed high on her chest. The bank’s president, Teri Williams, called Tubman’s image on the debit card a “symbol of Black empowerment” that will help pave the way for her to appear on the $20 bill.

“The Harriet Tubman Visa Debit Card is the first limited-edition card offered by OneUnited Bank and will only be available in 2020. The card image is a painting called ‘The Conqueror’ by internationally acclaimed artist Addonis Parker. If you obtain the Harriet Tubman Card in 2020, you can carry the card design for life,” a statement from the site reads.

Harriet Tubman Painting

OneUnited is facing heavy criticism though, and the backlash on social media was almost instant with people accusing it of being “tone deaf” and a poor attempt to “trend”. The initial reaction from many on social media is that Tubman appears to be throwing up the famous “Wakanda Forever” salute from the 2018 “Black Panther” film.

The bank, however, claims that Tubman is not saluting Wakanda. According to the artist, Addonis Parker, the crossed arms are meant to represent 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 gesture is the sign language symbol for love. It’s so important that we love ourselves.” OneUnited tweeted.

To which some users pointed out that the explanation doesn’t add up:

But on Sunday, Parker replied by explaining that he finished this painting two years prior to the movie’s release, and that he moved the gesture higher in the card’s image to make it visible. To which one could argue that if it was intended to represent a word in the ASL language, it should be done correctly.

This card is the ninth in a series of holographic, tap to pay Visa debit cards that began in 2016, featuring what Williams said were “unapologetically black” figures. The bank says that the designs are a way to “make a statement that #BlackMoneyMatters with every dollar spent”.

OneUnited’s decision to put Tubman on their own payment device was due to the Treasury Department’s unexplained delay to put her on the $20 bill. But if her image had to be used, why not use a respectable portrait, as this would have prevented most of the criticism by anyone who’s seen the popular ‘Black Panther’ movie? Did no one from their team spot the obvious similarity? Did they maybe anticipate it and expect success regardless?

The bank isn’t swayed by the Twitter controversy though. Williams said that as soon as the card was unveiled, the direct response was “overwhelmingly positive” and customers began calling the bank asking to either sign up or to have their current cards replaced.

“The card is really an extension of our whole way in which we’ve been communicating to our community: Black money matters and social justice is intertwined with building economic wealth,” Williams told the Post.

Maybe it’s like the saying goes,”There’s no such thing as bad press”!

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