Mere days after Joe Biden was sworn in as President of the United States, the new administration announced its intention to put Harriet Tubman – known as Moses – on the twenty-dollar bill. The currency redesign – a relatively common occurrence in the 19th century – was originally set for release in 2020 to mark the centennial of the 19th Amendment that granted women the right to vote. The majority of Americans supported the redesign in 2016 when the last poll on the issue was taken. President Donald Trump put the project on hold, citing security issues and attributing the Obama initiative to sheer political correctness. While Trump may still view Andrew Jackson as an American hero, historians are quick to point out the complexities of the former U.S. president’s biography. Jackson owned hundreds of slaves and was responsible for the Indian Removal Act that led to the death of about 4,000 Cherokees, forced to walk from the Southern states to modern-day Oklahoma on what is now referred to as the Trail of Tears. Even though he probably should be, Jackson will not be completely removed from the twenty-dollar bill – he’ll just be demoted to the back. The irony of placing Tubman on one side and Jackson on the other on a symbol of national identity has not gone unnoticed and certainly speaks to the division in American society today.
“Putting Tubman on legal tender, when slaves in the U.S. were treated as fungible commodities is a supreme form of disrespect. The imagery of her face changing hands as people exchange cash for goods and services evokes for me discomfiting scenes of enslaved persons being handed over as payment for white debt or for anything white slaveholders wanted,” says Brittany Cooper, professor at Rutgers University, in her Time Magazine’s rebuke. She additionally questions whether Tubman, who dedicated her life to emancipation and equal rights for African Americans, would have actually viewed the gesture as an honor given the economic, health, and housing disparities for Black people in the U.S. today. Cooper continues: “Too often America attempts to atone for racism through style and symbol rather than substance. We don’t need America to put Black women on its money. We need America to put its money on Black women.” All points well taken.
After reading Cooper’s article and a few other criticisms, I decided to finally pick up the 2020 biography written by Kerry Walters on Harriet Tubman (ABC-CILO Press), a book I had wanted to read since watching the biopic Harriet directed by Kasi Lemmons. I didn’t realize the extent to which the former slave and illiterate conductor for the Underground Railroad, Civil War cook, nurse, scout, spy as well as outspoken supporter of women’s rights endured hardship. Her childhood was over at the age of 6 or 7, then her brutal life as a slave began, whippings and all. After hearing about her imminent sale in 1849, Harriet – now in her early 20s – left her husband behind, a free Black man who didn’t want to leave. Walters estimates that Tubman conducted no fewer than 13 trips back to the Eastern Shore and freed about 70 family members and other slaves. Tubman is also credited with leading 150 black Union soldiers and freeing over 700 slaves in the Combahee River Raid on June 1, 1863. She was the only woman during the Civil War to lead a military operation.
Following the Civil War, on her train ride home in Oct. 1865, she was ‘repaid’ for her service to the nation by being brutally assaulted by a bunch of thugs who didn’t want ‘one of her kind’ on their train. Fighting back, she suffered a broken arm and some ribs which made her ill fit to work for months. She was, after all, the main breadwinner and matriarch for relatives and friends alike. Year after year, food was a scarcity. When forced to, she begged to feed herself as well as her charges and often sought the charity of devoted admirers and patrons. Destitute, she nevertheless supported former slaves and the impoverished. According to Walters, she and her church regularly sponsored bazars to feed the forgotten. Tubman was finally able to eke out a living when Sarah Bradford wrote the hero’s biography and declined royalties from the published books that followed. Yet it wasn’t until 1899, 35 years after the end of her military service, that Tubman was finally granted a pension of $20 dollars a month – again the irony of that sum has not gone unnoticed.
So yes, it is somewhat unfitting to put her likeness on a banknote, the very thing that she did not have much of. And yes, she had to repeatedly petition the U.S. government to recognize her military pension. And yes, the redesign will not make up for decades or even centuries of disregard, injustice, and misery. However, at the same time, I still feel that if her picture on a 20-dollar bill causes others like me to study the rest of her story – the good, the bad, and the ugly – then that, at least, is worth something. Tubman was and is an American hero. Instead of just relegating her to the world of children’s books, on our currency, she will become part of our world each and every day. Representation is a subject not to be taken lightly. Americans of all creeds and cultures need to see Black faces in the White House, in the cinema, and even on our banknotes.
As to the disparities mentioned above, there is still a lot of work to be done. Instead of waiting around for the government to do something, let’s ask ourselves what we can do to stand for and stand with marginalized people – as Tubman did – each and every day.
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