A Response to Those Using Harriet Tubman’s Legacy to Create Division

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There has been a lot of backlash against the upcoming Harriet Tubman biopic because the actress playing Tubman is Cynthia Erivo, a Nigerian actress who has said some insensitive things about African Americans on social media. Below are some of the tweets that people have been sharing online:

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Many African Americans were rightfully upset by Erivo’s insensitive remarks about an American ghetto accent. Her apparently retweeting a tweet that suggests that African Americans are jealous of Africans also plays into the division that I have been strongly opposed to. People are also raising concerns over Erivo’s support of Luvvie Ajayi, who has posted some very insensitive remarks about African Americans as well in the past.

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The remarks from both Erivo and Luvvie are very insensitive to African American culture and history, especially Luvvie’s remarks about HBCUs. The first president of Nigeria, Nnamdi Azikiwe, went to Howard, an HBCU. Azikiwe would later honor William Leo Hansberry, who was one of Azikiwe’s professors at Howard, by naming a college in Nigeria after Hansberry. If an HBCU was good enough for Azikiwe then it should be good enough for Luvvie’s children.

Returning to Erivo’s remarks, the association with African Americans as being “ghetto” is something that white society has engaged in to dehumanize and demean African Americans. For example, African American Vernacular English (AAVE)or otherwise known as Ebonics, which Carter G. Woodson described as “a broken-down African tongue”, is often presented by American society as being inferior, which is why it is associated with being “bad English” or being ghetto. Erivo, wittingly or unwittingly, contributed to the degradation of African American culture with that tweet, so I do understand the backlash against her. There is nothing “ghetto” about AAVE.

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Where I take issue with how ADOS is handling the situation is that what should be an issue with a Nigerian individual is becoming yet another African American versus Nigerian issue on Twitter. As is typically the case, emotion is prevailing over logic. Take a look at some of these tweets.

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I wrote an article correcting Yvette Carnell’s shallow and inaccurate treatment of the African role in the slave trade, and the tweets above demonstrate why I felt the need to do so. The founders of the ADOS movement try to present a narrative of history in which African Americans are victims of the slave trade and Nigerians were the slave traders. The reality is a bit more complex, as I explained in my article below.

Every ethnic group in Africa which participated in the slave trade were victimized by the slave trade as well, so do not be surprised if some of the African Americans who are criticizing Erivo’s Igbo lineage also share the same lineage and come from the same tribe that Erivo comes from. Lansiné Kaba explained the situation best when he wrote: “The legacy of the Atlantic slave trade has diminished the dignity of every black person, regardless of his or her intrinsic qualities. Thus all blacks-rulers, traders, and war captives alike became victims or potential victims.” No one was safe from the ravages of the slave trade and the history of the Igbo people clearly demonstrates this. One of the best known Igbo rulers was Jaja of Opobo. He was a former slave.

Notice in one of the tweets above Antonio Moore, the ADOS co-founder, is asking which specific subtribe Erivo comes from. I point this out because Moore again demonstrates a stunning ignorance of identity in Africa. The Nwadiala or diala that Moore mentions refers to the caste system which exists among the Igbo people. It has nothing to do with “subtribe.” Osu and diala both belong to the same Igbo tribe. The distinction between two was that the osu represented the descendants of people who were sacrificed to the gods. This meant that these people gave their lives in service of the gods. They owned no land and were banned from participating in civil society. They also were not allowed to marry someone from outside of the osu caste, so that people were born into being an osu. And contrary to what Moore seems to think, diala is not synonymous with slave trader. It simply means one who was not born into the osu caste and thus did not have the restrictions placed on them that the osu did.

The thing those in the ADOS movement must understand is that many Africans from the continent do not know very much about African Americans. African American history and the African American struggle is not taught in Africa. I know this because I have had encounters with people from Africa who knew that African Americans were enslaved, but did not realize how inhumane and brutal slavery was in America. One brother from Ghana assumed that slavery in the United States was no different from the type of indentured servitude that the Asante people in Ghana practiced, so I had to explain to him that enslaved Africans in the United States were treated much worse. This history is simply not taught in Africa. In fact, many Africans barely know their own history, much less African American history, which is why Luvvie so ignorantly dismissed HBCUs.

ADOS also needs to understand that much of what Africans do know comes from what the American media projects and we know that the image that the media presents of African Americans is usually not a positive one, so many Africans on the continent develop very negative perceptions of African Americans based on that.

I mention this because a lot of the division and bickering we see play out on social media is based on the fact that Africans and African Americans do not know very much about each other’s history, struggles, and experiences. You hear African Americans complain about being called akata (a Yoruba term that roughly translates as “wild cat”) and people from Nigeria, such as Luvvie, complain about being called “African booty scratcher.” I have met Africans who complained about being mistreated by African Americans and African Americans who complained about being mistreated by Africans, so this is an issue that goes both ways. As the tweets above demonstrate, there is a lot of ignorance on both sides that will have to be corrected in order to solve this disunity.

Where I have taken issue with ADOS as a collective movement is that rather than working on bridging this divide by properly educating misinformed Africans and West Indians, the founders of create more division and misunderstanding because they themselves are very misinformed on these topics, but they continue to speak on these issues and end up misinforming many of their followers as well. These misinformed people have decided to attack Erivo for being an Igbo, even though some of them (such as Moore and Yvette) are ignorant about Igbo history and culture. The issue, at least where I am concerned, is not that Erivo is an Igbo, but that she’s misinformed about African American culture and apparently thinks that African Americans are jealous of Africans. There is no reason to bring her tribe into this.

As for the question of whether or not it is okay to have an non-African American play such a historical figure like Harriet Tubman, I personally see no issue with this. There was no great outcry in South Africa when Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman were selected to play Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela respectively. Moreover, there was no outcry over the fact that Denzel Washington played Malcolm X, despite the fact that Denzel does not have Grenadian lineage like Malcolm — at least, none that I am aware of. Ugandans were very supportive of Forest Whitaker’s portrayal Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. This praise even came from Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni.

This seems to be an issue of late because more and more African actors and actresses are being featured in American movies and playing roles that some believe should have gone to African Americans. For example, David Oyelowo played Martin Luther King in Selma and Lupita Nyong’o played Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. I first noticed this controversy when Samuel Jackson complained about the number of Black actors from Britain being selected to play roles in American films.

This is really only a problem because Black people have little creative control or power in the American movie industry, and as such there are relatively few major roles for Black actors when compared to the roles that are offered to White actors. You don’t see too many White Americans criticizing British actors like Christian Bale or Tom Hardy for taking away roles from native White Americans because White people in Hollywood do not feel like they are competition with each other, but Black people do have that feeling. Hollywood has always been a place of limited opportunities for Black people comparative to the opportunities that Whites have. This issue is not one that I will discuss in much detail here, but I mention it because one of the many reasons divisions exist between Africans around the world is that we often engage in unnecessary competition with each other over industries and resources that we do not control.

I will end this by mentioning that in 2005, Tubman’s descendants were invited to Ghana to attend an ceremony for her in which a street was renamed in her honor and a statute was erected for her. Tubman’s family believes that Tubman’s grandmother was taken from Ghana, especially from the Ashanti tribe. For those who are unaware, the Ashanti tribe was a slave trading tribe just like the Igbo. That’s right. Harriet Tubman descended from a tribe that participated in the slave trade just like Cynthia Erivo does. But on that occasion it mattered very little. What mattered was that Tubman’s family was able to return home to Ghana and witness the government of Ghana honor Tubman’s legacy. Harriet Tubman’s legacy is one that has the power to unite African Americans and Africans, so it is disappointing to see how her legacy is being used to create more division.


Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.

Dwayne Wong (Omowale) is a Guyanese born Pan-Africanist, author, and law student.

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