On Thursday, OneUnited Bank announced a new limited-edition Black History Month version of its Visa debit card. The card features a rendition of famed American abolitionist and Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman with her arms folded across her chest, created by Miami-based artist Addonis Parker.
But when the bank announced the new card on Twitter, reactions were swift and critical.
Some assumed the project had been led by a clueless white marketing team. Many interpreted Tubman’s crossed arms as the “Wakanda Forever” salute from the Marvel film Black Panther.
According to Parker, however, his portrait of Tubman was intended to convey the American Sign Language symbol for “love.” He told Adweek that he started the painting in 2016 (two years before Black Panther’s release) when the Obama administration’s Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced that Harriet Tubman would be the new face on the $20 bill. That decision was delayed last year by Lew’s replacement, Stephen Mnuchin, reportedly to avoid a potential effort by President Trump to revoke the addition of Tubman entirely.
“Her pose is about love. Love is the greatest power in the world, and love is the greatest poverty in the world today,” Parker said. “I wanted her to be saying, ‘I did all this in my legacy because I love you.’ She’s talking to the future generations.”
Parker said his admiration for Tubman matches his respect for other civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
“She was an icon. She had more gall than a lot of men in history,” Parker said. “We know that she was led by God.”
And for OneUnited Bank president Teri Williams, the controversy over the Tubman card is nothing new. As the largest Black-owned bank in the nation, OneUnited operates according to a different mission, according to its website: “empower our community and close the racial wealth gap.”
“When the decision was made to delay putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, we said, ‘We think that we have a role to play here because we can actually put her on a global payment instrument,’” Williams told Adweek.
Williams hopes that by placing Tubman’s image on a debit card, it will help spur momentum to add the abolitionist to national currency. And she eschewed critics that may misunderstand the reasoning behind the card’s design.
“We put out many images that are unapologetically black,” Williams said, “because we believe that it’s important for us to celebrate our culture and to communicate to the world that Black money matters.”
The emphasis on “unapologetically” belies the power of Parker’s work, which he said has instigated controversy in the past.
In February 2017, the bank issued “the Amir card,” in partnership with the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter. Other OneUnited card designs feature images about immigration (“the Justice card”) and show black kings and queens in golden royal crowns and jewels. The images aren’t always easy for everyone, Parker said: “I’m used to it, the haters. But tell them I love them.”
“We understand that a lot of people are not used to seeing that, particularly from a bank—taking a stand that black lives matter,” Williams said. “But we think it’s really important for us to support social justice because we understand that civil rights and social justice have a huge impact on our wealth building.”
Williams said the bank puts money behind its mission, donating to Black Lives Matter as well as the ACLU and the BMe Campaign.
The strongly negative reaction to the Tubman card on Twitter was reminiscent of the previous week’s controversy over Barnes & Noble’s issuing a set of classic titles with cover art reinterpreting the protagonists as people of color. While many accused Barnes & Noble of a kind of “literary blackface,” the book designs were actually the brainchild of Doug Melville, the chief diversity officer at TBWA\Chiat\Day. Melville explained the concept behind his #DiverseEditions project in a LinkedIn video Thursday—but only after the book designs were pulled in a reaction to public outcry.
The bank isn’t swayed by the Twitter controversy. Williams said that as soon as the Harriet Tubman card was unveiled, the direct response was “overwhelmingly positive” and customers began calling the bank asking to either order the card or to have their current cards replaced.
“This is who we are. We’re Black all day, every day,” said Williams. “We’re here for our community, and our focus is really on being unapologetically and authentically Black.”