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

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tags: Harriet Tubman, Kanye West, Trump

Kate Clifford Larson specializes in 19th and 20th century U.S. Women's and African American History. After earning two degrees from Simmons College in Boston, and an MBA from Northeastern University, Larson pursued a Doctorate in American History at the University of New Hampshire. She is the author of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero.

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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 TMZthis Tuesday. The backlash was swift and merciless. Rather than backtrack — acknowledging that the idea that slavery was a choiceis 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 $20bill. 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....

Read entire article at Vox