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Is that Harriet Tubman on a bank debit card, throwing a Wakanda salute?

A new debit card by the largest black-owned bank in the U.S. drew criticism and expressions of disbelief for its image of the famed abolitionist making a gesture similar to one in "Black Panther."
Image: One United Bank's Harriet Tubman card.
One United Bank's Harriet Tubman card.One United Bank

A new debit card from the nation's largest black-owned bank with an image of Harriet Tubman throwing a gesture that bears striking resemblance to one from the movie "Black Panther" drew criticism and expressions of disbelief on social media.

The famed abolitionist and political activist is shown with fists crossed over her chest, which some saw as a gesture from the Marvel blockbuster movie "Black Panther" about the fictional African country Wakanda.

Bank officials said the gesture is not from the movie, but rather the sign for "love" in American Sign Language.

OneUnited had been considering using Tubman's image for a debit card since 2016, according to the company's president and chief operating officer, Teri Williams, who spoke to NBC News on Friday. The bank finally decided to to use Tubman's likeness after the Trump administration declined to move forward with Obama-era plans to put her image on the $20 bill.

"We didn’t want to portray her as she normally is, which is in a passive pose," Williams said. "When the artist presented this image of her we actually loved it. Particularly today, black love is an important message."

But some Twitter users denounced the use of Tubman's image on a bank card as disrespectful, while others focused on the Wakanda-like gesture.

Democratic National Committee spokesman Brandon Gassaway pondered whether Tubman's Underground Railroad, which led many slaves to freedom, had more stops than previously known.

"So Harriet was taking folks to Wakanda?" Gassaway tweeted.

Sports journalist J.A. Adande appeared to question the notion of using an important African American historical figure for a financial product.

"I’m gonna pass on the Harriet Tubman debit card and wait for the Sojourner Truth gift card," he tweeted, referencing another abolitionist icon.

It's also not clear if the gesture of fists crossed high on the chest is the most commonly used sign for "love."

"It seems to show the Wakanda 'forever' symbol rather than an American Sign Language sign for love," according to Robert Weinstock, spokesman for Gallaudet University, a prominent university for the deaf and hard of hearing. "I would hesitate to portray it as anything but the Wakanda imagery."

Isidore Niyongabo, president of National Black Deaf Advocates, said the bank's Tubman depiction is close to either the word "love" or "freedom" but not really either.

Despite the indiscernible sign language, Niyongabo said he appreciated the campaign.

"Actually, I was inspired," Niyongabo said in a text message. "First of all, because I cannot imagine separating Harriet Tubman's legacy, work and leadership from the true meaning of black empowerment. It is not often that we get to see our heroes honored at such level."

Despite the reaction, OneUnited's Williams said she stands by the design decisions on the card and that it will remain available for the rest of 2020.

"I still think the message we are conveying is a very positive message," Williams said. "But I respect the comments we’ve received."