clock menu more-arrow no yes

Kanye West’s Harriet Tubman tweets show how little we know about her history

I’m a Harriet Tubman historian. There’s a lot that West got wrong.

Kanye West onstage at Adidas Creates 747 Warehouse St. on February 17, 2018, in Los Angeles.
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for adidas

Kayne West’s recent foray into the minefield of cultural and historical wars has earned him a self-inflicted wound, to say the least.

“When you hear about slavery for 400 years ... for 400 years? That sounds like a choice,” said West in an interview with TMZ this Tuesday. The backlash was swift and merciless. Rather than backtrack — acknowledging that the idea that slavery was a choice is preposterous — he became even more strident in defending the indefensible.

Portraying himself as a modern-day warrior fighting Twitter trolls and assorted media, West went on to argue that if he had lived “148 years ago,” he would have been “more like Harriet [Tubman] or Nat [Turner].” African Americans are “mentally enslaved,” he charged, and he is the hero, like Tubman, who will lead them to freedom.

Using a discredited, likely fake quote attributed to Harriet Tubman, West tweeted, “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves,” implying that Tubman too believed many slaves were simply making the decision to stay in bondage.

Just a day later in a confusing interview, West told radio personality Charlamagne Tha God that he started using the cryptocurrency Bitcoin “when I saw Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. It’s like when you see all the slave movies, it’s like why you gotta keep reminding us about slavery? Why don’t you put Michael Jordan on the $20 bill?” Tubman had gone in the wink of an eye from West’s model of a slave who “chose freedom” to a symbol of our nation’s obsession with “reminding us” of our history of slavery.

To state the obvious, Kanye West is no Harriet Tubman. All this is a disappointing testament to the lack of historical knowledge and imagination in this country, which has long struggled to confront its own original sin of race-based slavery — the opposite of West’s contention that we are obsessed with our past. It is an all-too-frequent dismissal, too, of the contributions of women, and in this case an extraordinary African-American woman.

As a Harriet Tubman scholar, I am well versed in Tubman’s biography and the history and myths of American slavery. The particular fake quote West cited first emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when white and black conservatives frequently used it to scold young black men. Now it’s been circulated so many times — even tweeted by Democratic Sen. Cory Booker — and has taken on a variety of meanings.

That the “save a thousand” quote was ever uttered by a formerly enslaved person feels preposterous on its face. Of course enslaved people knew they were slaves. The inability to love freely, to work for their own benefit, to travel unfettered, to raise their children to adulthood, and to determine their own future was not a “mental state.” Slavery was intensely physical: Slave masters could rape, torture, starve, and neglect their slaves with impunity. They could separate families and deny basic human rights and dignity. Slavery took away choice from enslaved people, leaving but two: acquiesce and live, or rebel and die.

Escaping slavery was a dangerous, rare, and excruciating choice

Escaping from slavery, which West cast as the choice he would have made, was rare and extremely difficult for many reasons. Capture and reenslavement was common for enslaved people who fled, and those who did make the choice to leave behind everyone they loved did so for an uncertain future. The few who managed to escape successfully almost universally stayed away and never came back. If West were in the hypothetical position of being enslaved, would he leave his family behind, as Tubman did?

Harriet Tubman was one of the rare people who escaped. Born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Tubman survived a horrific childhood. After she was nearly killed by a blow to her head that left her permanently disabled, Tubman was determined to be free. When she discovered that her master’s widow intended to sell her, she was faced with her own Sophie’s Choice: be sold as a slave or leave everyone she loved, including her husband John, for a possible future as a marginally free person. Even if she were to successfully run away without getting killed and make it to the Northern states, she’d be considered a fugitive from justice.

But Tubman did choose to leave, and what made her different from many other escaped slaves was her decision to return to Maryland to rescue her family and friends. Using her keen intelligence and deep faith, combined with a unique set of survival skills, Tubman navigated some of the most dangerous terrain in the world, risking her life daily.

Tubman waged her battle against slavery as an Underground Railroad agent and abolitionist, as well as a Civil War spy and nurse. She challenged her friends and foes alike to confront the inhumanity, degradation, and brutality of a system that denied people of African descent their right to full lives in freedom. She proclaimed the truth that if anyone in a community remains shackled, the whole community is bound and chained.

The Harriet Tubman $20 bill represents an important part of our history

Contrary to what West said, placing Tubman’s image on the $20 bill would hardly be backward-looking — certainly no more so than placing a white man born in the 1700s on our currency.

As an African-American woman, Tubman not only secured freedom for many slaves both before and during the Civil War but also championed women’s rights, and argued for “equal pay for equal work” when the US government refused to compensate her for her war work as a spy and scout. Tubman was also an entrepreneur — during the Civil War, she created a laundry and restaurant in South Carolina, where she taught newly liberated women how to provide goods and services to the Union Army for pay. Later, she ran several businesses from her home in Auburn, New York, where she supported a house full of family members, struggling friends, and homeless women and children.

Tubman did not live long enough to see women achieve voting rights. She battled racist white women who wanted the vote for themselves but not for black women. She had to stand aside when her brothers voted — the same men she rescued from shackles. Like all black women, Tubman faced sexism and racism. Her presence on our currency helps to represent another side of our history: the much-ignored stories of black women who helped build this country.

Are we too focused on slavery today? The Southern Poverty Law Center conducted a study this year about the status of knowledge about and the teaching of the history of slavery. The report revealed that only 8 percent of high school seniors understand that slavery was a major cause of the Civil War.

It is deeply troubling that Americans have little respect or understanding of what slavery wrought upon this nation and the many ways we still live with its racist legacy: unequal access to quality education, health care, safe communities, voting, wages, and more.

Despite what West says, we must never forget our past. West and all Americans should honor the struggles and accomplishments of people like Harriet Tubman, an ordinary woman who did extraordinary things to secure freedom and equality for all. She stands as a testament to our complicated history and the price extracted from those who had few choices. Her memory deserves better.

Kate Clifford Larson is the author of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. She is the consulting historian for the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and National Park in Maryland and serves as an interpretive specialist for numerous public history initiatives related to Tubman and the Underground Railroad in Maryland, Delaware, and New York.


First Person is Vox’s home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.