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#MemeOfTheWeek: Harriet Tubman And The Evolution Of Internet Phenomena

A photograph of escaped slave abolitionist Harriet Tubman is was displayed on Capitol Hill last year.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
A photograph of escaped slave abolitionist Harriet Tubman is was displayed on Capitol Hill last year.

On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew announced that former slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman would grace a new version of the $20 bill. The news came after a prolonged effort to get women's faces on U.S. currency, with Tubman's name mentioned for several months. On the surface, the Tubman 20 announcement could be seen as an overwhelmingly acceptable development. A feel good story. A chance to celebrate.

But over the course of just one day, Harriet Tubman and her place on our money came to represent the eternal timeline of Internet phenomena, a never-ending cycle of a good thing becoming bad, a real thing becoming fake, something innocuous turning toxic. Also, because Internet, Hamilton and Beyonce seem to always end up part of said conversation.

Let's explore.

Phase 1: This is awesome

When the news hit the Internet Wednesday morning, there was the expected celebration, with tweets like these.

And Tubman was not the only woman the Internet celebrated. It was also announced that suffragists Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul would make it onto the new $10 bill as well.

Phase 2: This is not awesome enough

But then there was a second, more critical, wave of social media reaction.

Some thought the depiction of Tubman should be truer to who she was, a rebel not afraid to use force.

Others disliked the fact that Andrew Jackson would still be on the same bill as well, just on the other side.

And there was a bit of chatter around the fact that Hamilton-creator Lin Manuel Miranda actually lobbied to keep one man on U.S. currency, Alexander Hamilton himself.

Phase 3: Wait, this is actually awful

Then some suggested that the entire notion of putting Tubman on U.S. currency was in itself, offensive. Why make a woman who was bought and sold with U.S. dollars the symbol of one of the tools used to keep her in chains? A video from a few months ago resurfaced Thursday, making those points.

Phase 4: Hold on! I have something maybe offensive to say about this

Before the day was done, neurosurgeon and former presidential candidate Ben Carson chimed in on Harriet Tubman. He suggested that she should not grace the $20, but instead, the $2 bill, in order to keep Jackson on the bill. The Internet quickly rebuked Carson.

Phase 5: Wait, everything is a lie. (And here comes Beyoncé)

As the day came to an end, social media rediscovered a blog post from March of this year, saying the famous Harriet Tubman quote that had been widely shared online to celebrate was actually wrong. Turns out Tubman never said of her work as an abolitionist: "I could have saved thousands — if only I'd been able to convince them they were slaves."

And Twitter released data showing that even Harriet Tubman couldn't have her time in the spotlight without having Beyoncé in the conversation as well. Because Beyoncé.

It is fitting perhaps, our treatment of Tubman in this moment. She, maybe one of the most authentic historical figures of all time, is still subject to the Internet's game of constant redefinition, meme-ification, second-guessing, and over-thinking. The Internet tends to make all things creatures of Internet, with all that entails. There is no getting around it. From this fact, it seems even an abolitionist can not break free.

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Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.