The Real Problem with Putting Harriet Tubman on American Money
Last Tuesday, Women on 20s, a non-profit organization petitioning to get a woman’s face on US money, announced that after two months of two rounds of voting, Harriet Tubman was the people’s choice to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. On the surface, this seems fitting. Instead of continuing to celebrate the man responsible for the Trail of Tears, why not pay for your groceries with a bill marked by the face of a formerly-enslaved woman-turned-abolitionist who moved her people from one section of the country to the other in the name of freedom rather than for its usurpation?
I want to respond with the proverbial, “Yasss,” but I can’t. Does this move do justice to Harriet? I understand the desire to replace the overwhelmingly white male representation on our money. I understand wanting to replace the same white men who owned our ancestors, who maintained the dehumanization of black and indigenous folks, with a woman — especially a woman of color. It’s as if we get to kill two birds with one stone, tackling the dearth of representation of women with that of people of color simultaneously by pushing forward toward the materialization of the Tubman-$20.
Yet, Harriet’s position as both black and a woman demands careful attention as to what kind of progress this choice represents. There is no question that Harriet is a woman worthy of this honor. The question, instead, is whether or not we are genuinely honoring Harriet in a way that she deserves.
Harriet’s identity as a black woman means that we cannot overlook our country’s deeply-rooted relationship between race and capital in the name of recalibrating gender representation. We don’t all “woman” the same way. That’s as true today as it was almost two centuries ago when Harriet was born. And it is imperative that our different legacies not be disregarded in the name of dismantling the existing patriarchy.
Take a look at Jay Smooth’s recent video. Like myself, Jay initially “signed on right away.” But with time comes reflection, as he points out, “What we’re basically talking about right now is honoring the work Harriet Tubman did to free us from slavery by putting her face on the reason we were in slavery.”
Let’s sit with that for a second.
Putting a woman’s face on a dollar bill isn’t just about women in general. Some of us first met the dollar on the auction block. Some of our fellow women bought us there. For some of us, the dollar was the currency paid to deny us our humanity, let alone our womanhood. The dollar was the dealmaker that transformed our kidnapping, our bare survival in the belly of ships above the Atlantic, the breaking of our families, of our tongues, of our customs, in the name of a country claiming to cultivate life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For some of us, the dollar signifies the inherent hypocrisy of how we are American.
How can we then not take that seriously as we seek to transform the money produced in America’s name, especially as the present continues to be haunted by that past? It’s hard not to hear the echoes of drapetomania when victims, like Walter Scott, are a priori found culpable in their executions at the hands of police officers simply because they ran away. And just as the auction block seems to be but a distant memory, the words of a Brooklyn landlord and developer in a recent New York Magazine article remind us that gentrification is the new face of a uniquely American idea: “every black person has a price.”
Harriet once said, “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” We may not first meet America with wrists and ankles bound in physical chains today. But for every one of our babies slaughtered for the sake of impunity, for every one of our own pressured into the prison pipeline for a profit, for every one of us who is denied the right to exercise our constitutional right to free speech or is reprimanded for doing so, we are reminded that even if we are not slaves, the legacy of slavery lingers. We are reminded that we continue to live in a country obsessed with regulating our every move and with displacing us out of our homes for economic gains with little regard for the quality of our lives.
So what form of liberation has been chosen with the $20 bill? Is putting Harriet’s face on a bill anything, let alone enough? Harriet risked her life again and again for us, as black people, as Americans, to be here today. She fought for our future long before we were alive to have one. But she did so in hopes of dismantling an institution, that of slavery, which bore the racism we continue to encounter today. Does this move maintain her legacy, or make a mockery of it?
As much as I want to pay for anything I buy with a piece of paper with a woman, particularly of Harriet’s stature, looking back at me, I, like Harriet, want to act in a way that insists on creating a qualitatively different future for those who will come after me. How can we make sure changing the face of one of our bills invests in such a future? Am I, for instance, to be satisfied that one day Darren Wilson may be uncomfortable buying his child clothing with a Tubman-$20, while we continue to live in a world where a man can make a million killing a black kid in cold blood?
If the new bill is not pursued in tandem with institutional change, if both cannot be done, we may find ourselves disrespecting, rather than honoring, Harriet. We may find ourselves sacrificing Moses, derailing our collective journeys to the promise land. And for who? For “women”? Harriet wasn’t just a woman, but a black woman, and it is that fact, her existence at the intersection of race and gender, that complicates how we understand what, if any, progress is truly being pursued in the move to make her the “new” face of American capital.
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