Does the ADOS Movement Truly Care About Harriet Tubman’s Legacy ?

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The ADOS movement which was co-founded by Antonio Moore and Yvette Carnell has been at the forefront of the controversy over the fact that a non-African American woman was selected to play Harriet Tubman in an upcoming film about Tubman’s life. Much of the controversy has centered on the negative remarks which Cynthia Erivo made about African American culture, but the larger issue seems to be the perception that Harriet Tubman’s legacy solely belongs to African Americans and as such only African Americans should be able to play her. This is also central to the larger discussion among African identity in the diaspora and globally, which is one of the important discussions that has been raised by the ADOS movement.

One issue that I have noticed is that the ADOS view of African American history is not radically different than the manner in which American history is generally treated by the mainstream. Tubman for Yvette Carnell and others in ADOS is used to affirm the American identity of African Americans. This is not much different than those Republicans who use Tubman to affirm their political views by asserting that Tubman was a Republican. Tubman was focused mainly on the abolition of slavery and she was one of the many abolitionist who felt that Abraham Lincoln was moving too slowly on the issue, so she certainly was not an avid supporter of Lincoln. Moreover, Tubman could not even vote during her lifetime given that women’s suffrage passed after Tubman died — Tubman was involved in the struggle for women’s suffrage. Tubman is often used to serve the political or ideology views of the parties using her legacy, but when one studies who Tubman was one finds that she was a very complex woman. Republicans reduced Tubman’s complexities for their agenda and the ADOS movement is now doing the same thing.

Those in the ADOS movement generally present Tubman as a voiceless figure and use aspects of her life which support the ADOS ideology while discarding other aspects of her life. Take for example this video by Yvette Carnell:

At round 10:20 in the video above, Yvette Carnell mentions Tubman’s relationship with Frederick Douglass. This is purely for ideological reasons because Yvette then goes on to mention Douglass’ criticisms of African slave traders. What Yvette does not mention is that Tubman also worked with Martin Delany, who had a much different view of Africa than Douglass did.

Yvette is engaging in the very subtle tactic of trying to associate Douglass’ anti-African position with Tubman. As I said, Tubman also knew Delany as well and Delany advocated going back to Africa. For those who are not aware, Delany met with President Abraham Lincoln to discuss the racism that Black soldiers endured in the Union Army. Delany proposed the creation of a Black Army, which he referred to as “corps d’Afrique.” Tubman was tasked with helping Delany to recruit soldiers for this army. Tubman and Delany served together during the Civil War and both were present at Fort Sumter for a victory celebration and Union flag raising ceremony.

The ADOS narrative of history is not much different from the standard whitewashed version of history which seeks to downplay or exclude the Black Nationalists like Delany in favor of integrationists such as Douglass. But the larger issues is the manner in which Harriet Tubman’s own voice is erased in then narrative that Yvette is trying to present. Tubman was much more than those whom she associated with. How did Tubman view America? How did she view herself in relation to Africa? Yvette Carnell and others in the ADOS movement are so outraged at the mere thought of an African playing Tubman that no consideration is given for how Tubman herself viewed some of the questions of identification which ADOS is raising.

Tubman was born in America, but she did not maintain a particularly close emotional attachment to America. In fact, when the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, Tubman was quoted as saying: “I wouldn’t trust Uncle Sam wid my people no longer, but I brought ’em all clar off to Canada.” Tubman herself lived in Canada for some time and there are monuments dedicated to Tubman in Canada.

Being free meant more to Tubman than being an American did. I do not say this to negate the fact that Tubman was an American, but to point out how Tubman herself viewed being an American. Also keep in mind that in 1857 the Supreme Court had ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that African people were not American citizens. As Tubman herself said, she did not trust America, so she began taking her people to Canada where they would be free. In this regard, Tubman differed very little from Delany and others who argued that if Africans could not find freedom in America then they should go elsewhere to find freedom. This why I think it is a very disingenuous tactic on Yvette’s part to mention Tubman in connection with Douglass because Douglass’ views on being an America were not Tubman’s views. Tubman’s views on America are not even Yvette’s views.

As for Africa, Harriet Tubman’s grandmother was born in Africa and Tubman herself never disassociated from Africa. After all, she was a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Tubman never rejected being African, as some in the ADOS movement seem to do. In fact, the existence of the AME Zion Church and other churches which specifically used “African” as a label of identification is significant in what it represents about how African Americans viewed their relationship to Africa.

Frederick Douglass certainly represented someone who had relatively little interest in Africa or retaining any sort of ties with Africa. Douglass asserted: “I am not an African, as may be seen from my features and hair, and it is equally easy to discern that I am not a Caucasian.” Douglass’ views were not Tubman’s views, however. Tubman belonged to the group of African Americans who felt a strong enough connection to Africa to identify their institutions as African. Yvette says in her video (at the 15:15 mark) that African Americans should stop using the term “African.” Yvette has the right to not identify with Africa if she doesn't want to, but it is disingenuous to use Harriet Tubman to promote this anti-African agenda.

At 9:20 in Yvette’s video above, Yvette says that Tubman was not “an African in America” because of the discussions of her being on the $20 bill. W.E.B. Du Bois appeared on a American postage stamp. Does this negate Du Bois’ connection with Africa? Trying to negate Tubman’s identification with Africa because the government decides to put her face on the $20 bill along with a slave owner is another example of the ahistorical nature of the ADOS movement which I have been so critical of.

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I have criticized the ADOS movement before for twisting facts or ignoring facts for the sake of presenting a particular narrative. The same is true for Harriet Tubman. As I pointed out, in the video above, Yvette Carnell is using Harriet Tubman’s name to promote Yvette’s agenda. The video above does not provide any meaningful insights into who Harriet Tubman was or how Tubman herself viewed her identity as an enslaved African woman in America.


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.

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