Harriet Tubman is having a moment.
Nearly 107 years after her death, the legendary abolitionist seems to be everywhere, from her Oscar-nominated biopic to a recently released debit card that bears her image.
Tubman’s visibility partly reflects a broader trend in which black figures, stories and music are at the forefront of popular culture, experts say.
But her popularity may also reflect the intersection of other forces, including the rise of the #MeToo movement, and the desire to spotlight an inspirational figure at a time the country is riven with political and racial tensions.
“I definitely think she’s the right character for the right moment,” says Jason Cieslak, president, Pacific Rim, at the global brand strategy firm Siegel+Gale. “It’s not just that she’s an amazing historical figure but … right now we’re looking for opportunities to celebrate powerful women, and she’s a wonderful example of that.”
Tubman might also be particularly resonant at a time when hate crimes are increasing and racial divisions are stark, he says.
“There’s been this awful rise of rhetoric … over the last few years that further divides this country,” he said. The media, Hollywood and some brands may be “looking for a righteous and authentic counter to that.”
Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill put on hold
Tubman’s legacy drew renewed attention in 2016 when the Obama administration said her face would be placed on the $20 bill and then again in 2019 when Donald Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the new design would take several years longer than planned because he had to focus instead on “security features.”
That switch drew a backlash from many critics who questioned whether it was based on politics, and it prompted OneUnited, the nation’s largest African American-owned bank, to put Tubman’s image on a debit card that debuted this month.
“We made the decision, ‘We can do this ourselves,”’ says Teri Williams, OneUnited’s president and COO. “We are empowered as a community to celebrate her legacy and we don’t have to basically wait for someone else to give us permission.”
The card featuring Tubman is currently the bank’s most requested design, Williams says. And the opening of new OneUnited accounts is 10 times higher than what the bank typically sees.
Is Harriet Tubman on a debit card disrespectful?
But Tubman’s likeness, taken from the painting “The Conquerer” by artist Addonis Parker, has also been controversial.
Some incorrectly believed the image portrayed Tubman making the “Wakanda Forever” sign that was popularized by the hit film “Black Panther.“ Others simply felt putting Tubman’s face on a debit card trivialized her legacy.
“You look at it and it stops you,” Cheryl Grace, senior vice president, U.S. Strategic Community Alliances and Consumer Engagement with Nielsen says. “Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is up to the person taking a look at it at the time.’’
One critic on Twitter wrote “Seriously!!! Why did you disrespect her like that???”
Another asked “Wondering what the Wakandan greeting has to do with Harriet Tubman & what @oneunited were thinking doing this foolishness.”
Tubman’s crossed arms are actually meant to convey the American sign language gesture for love, Williams says. And the card’s introduction is kicking off a yearlong campaign celebrating the 100th and 150th anniversary of black women and men getting the right to vote.
“We wanted … to celebrate her legacy, but we also want people to lead like Harriet,” Williams says, adding that the bank’s initiative aims to encourage African Americans to vote and bring others with them to the polls.
Backlash shows brands must tread carefully
The negative response by some to the debit card shows the risk a brand or business takes when it associates itself with an icon, marketing experts say.
“I think you have to be extraordinarily respectful,” Cieslak says, . “You can’t just assume from a brand standpoint consumers will understand the intent.”
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles misfired when it created an ad for Ram trucks that featured a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. Aired during the 2018 Super Bowl, the commercial turned off many viewers who felt it disrespected the civil rights icon’s legacy.
“They were using the power of his words and his voice (for) … hawking trucks,” Cieslak says. “They deserved to get blowback.”
But Cieslak says that in the proper context, Tubman’s courage deserves to be evoked in the same way historical figures like Thomas Edison and Abraham Lincoln are used to communicate qualities like honesty or innovation.
A black-owned bank putting Tubman on a debit card “feels …. authentic, and a purposeful place to honor and celebrate her,’’ Cieslak says. “If we shy away from those figures because of political sensitivities, I think we’re marginalizing some of the amazing contributions by African Americans. But again, it’s got to be done right.”
Brands should try to make sure their messaging is also educational, Grace says.
“Are they giving you a synopsis of who Harriet Tubman was and why it is significant that she’s on a debit card?” Grace says. “If you can educate me about Harriet, that’s great. But if I don’t know who she is, and I just have her card, I don’t know if that’s doing anything great for her legacy.”
From Lil Nas X to Serena Williams, there’s a renaissance
Tubman is hardly the first black historical figure to pierce the public consciousness. In the 1980s, the words of Malcolm X inspired countless rappers, and his image and name were ubiquitous, emblazoned on caps, T-shirts and posters. The famed activist later became the subject of a 1992 film, “Malcolm X,” directed by Spike Lee.
Tubman’s resurgence is occurring in the midst of a period in which black personalities and art forms are defining the mainstream, from hip-hop arguably overtaking pop in popularity, to athletes like tennis champion Serena Williams becoming standard-bearers for their sports.
“We’re seeing this resurgence in black culture (and) black history that supersedes Black History Month,’’ says Grace, who adds the trend has been building over the last five years.
That’s translated into profits for movie studios and other creators, making them more willing to tell stories rooted in black voices and experiences.
“Harriet,” a Universal Pictures and Focus Features film, has grossed roughly $43 million since its release in November, according to Gracenote, a Nielsen Company.
While it wasn’t among the year’s top earners, “Harriet” followed in the footsteps of earlier, more profitable movies like “Hidden Figures,” which highlighted the contributions of black women to the U.S. space race, and “Black Panther,” one of the highest-grossing superhero films of all time.
“Harriet” “might not have been told had there not first been ‘Black Panther,’’’ Grace says. “The interest is across demographics and …what (producers and studios) learn is that there are dollars in showing black people on big screens and small screens. That’s why we’re seeing so much of this.’’
Cieslak doesn’t see a downside and says perhaps there will be other black icons getting recognition like Tubman.
“My hope is there’s going to be more,” he says.
Follow Charisse Jones on Twitter @charissejones