Harriet Tubman, Twitter, and Freedom

San Francisco’s City Lights Books invited Dr. Clarence Lusane to speak about his new book, Twenty Dollars and Change: Harriet Tubman and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice, with moderator, Justin Desmangles. As I watched the livestream on November 21 of this year, the symbolism of Tubman awakened my memory. The cover of Dr. Lusane’s book reminded me that an image of Harriet Tubman had once been my profile picture on twitter.

Although I might have forgotten my selection of images for social media, the reasoning and emotions behind the choice were very present. In July 2018, I craved an image that symbolized freedom for my twitter profile pic. Nia Wilson had just been murdered and her sister, Lahtifa, stabbed while they, along with a third sister, Tayisha, waited for a train at an Oakland subway station. The stabbing murder forced me to consider how Black people in the U.S. still were not free. Eighteen-year-old Nia Wilson, a Black woman, was killed by John Lee Cowell, a twenty-seven-year-old White man. Cowell had been on the same train as the sisters prior to the stabbings. And despite his expressing in court his anger about being punched by a Black woman a week prior to the stabbings, and despite his having called another Black woman the N word on a city bus as he fled the crime scene, the murder of Nia Wilson was never ruled a hate crime. For me, the physical and emotional injuries inflicted on the Wilson family, along with the seemingly countless murders of Black people that filled social media from the deaths of Trayvon Martin to Sandra Bland to George Floyd highlighted the colonial nature of Black life in the U.S. The same political and economic forces that had labelled us less than human as they drug us through the Middle Passage, that had forced us to work in bondage with, to date, no compensation, and that had deemed us second-class citizens under fascist Jim Crow were still operational.

Before choosing the Tubman pic for my profile, I’d had so many profile names and pictures during my fourteen years on the social media site that I can’t remember them. After the murder of Nia Wilson, I’d chosen Tubman because as both a runaway and an abolitionist, she symbolized freedom. Freedom from the white supremacy ingrained in capitalism, freedom to be Black and a woman, freedom to make choices about how the Black community in the U.S. chose to live, freedom to find liberatory spaces.

During my years of Twitter usage, I witnessed how the site had been instrumental in several political movements during the early part of this century – the Arab Spring, the Indignados in Spain, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and EndSars in Nigeria. I’d later seen counter-revolution stifle the Arab Spring when authorities began policing social media and jailing activists. In Nigeria government officials froze the bank accounts of protestors or chased them into exile. And in the overdeveloped West, authorities silenced some activists while global capitalism proved itself capable of incorporating liberals from the Indignados, Occupy, and BLM movements into the status quo of electoral politics or career activism. These were activists who had failed to base their protest on the most radical of political demands.

Prior to the Musk takeover of twitter, I’d thought of the social media site as a space where leftists could not only keep up with political developments, but also engage in conscientization and grow in leftist theory. I’d seen the joking statements made by twitter users who said they came to the site as a liberal and ended up an anarchist. Given the political space in which we found ourselves, it’s not surprising that twitter attracted Black activists. It has been a space in which Black nationalists, Pan Africanists, feminists, leftists, and radicals could converge to share ideas and battle in ideology. If Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X advocated the termination of colonialism and human degradation by any means necessary, then twitter appeared one means of doing so.

While I was aware of the contradiction of using a capitalist site like twitter as a leftist political space under the helm of Jack Dorsey, I, like countless others, am even more aware of this insurmountable irony under twitter’s new ownership. Musk’s reactivation of rightwing accounts has resulted in some liberals and radicals abandoning the site. If people haven’t quit the site altogether, many are using it less as they drift towards other social media alternatives. More importantly, other activists are more determined to do up-close organizing on the ground with marginalized and oppressed communities.

Harriet Tubman was the last profile picture I used that wasn’t my own. I didn’t remove the Tubman image because I felt that the circumstances that led up to the killing of Nia Wilson no longer existed. The needs of Black people in the U.S. and those of the global Black community are more urgent than ever. Nor did I do so because of my demoralization with leftist politics. While respecting people who choose not to use their own names and likenesses, I simply reached a point in which I wanted to acknowledge and embrace the legacy of Harriet Tubman while representing myself. I remain committed to radical liberation in the West and the termination of a political economy that underdevelops Africa as it extracts the continent’s natural resources and labor on the cheap.

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