What's Suddenly Wrong With Putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 Bill?
The revival of a plan to place the fearless abolitionist general on U.S. currency holds much more significance than just placating symbolism
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The rebuke from a number of Black advocacy and political influencers on social media to place the legendary abolitionist general and freedom fighter Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill was quite surprising in its swiftness and irksome in the attention-seeking tone of it. But it was notable enough to prompt thoughts on the matter, as well as a burgeoning mini-movement of sentiment against President Biden’s plan to revive what his predecessor, Trump, had actively dismantled in his enduring quest to do all things racist and anti-Obama. It’s now become another Lego in a relentless conversation on just how loyal Biden will be to Black voters who helped him win: Will he shower us with true love or fake flower petals of symbolism?
Hence, the Tubman Plan is being viewed as silly sentimentalism in lieu of the kind of deep systemic substance that Black people need. Of course, Black people do need the policy substance; in fact, they need endless amounts of it. But, General Tubman’s profile adorning the $20 bill is more than just symbolism. The concept shouldn’t be rebuffed or ridiculed as only an old White guy’s fishy attempt at fooling Black voters into a sense of complacency. Indeed, it’s a very significant and necessary step towards further altering and cementing an essential Black history narrative that everyone can and must know. The nation’s survival, in fact, depends on not only that history being endlessly retold, but it being very much preserved and permantly etched into the American psyche.
Right now, open Black protest to Tubman’s face on the $20 bill is outright ridiculous, if not counter-productive. Activists and various public intellectuals, first, need to pause and pick battles wisely; there’s a whole lot of big issue fish in need of frying and this isn’t the one. The indecisive insanity of the outburst is astounding and it’s being translated like this: Damned if one bothers to put her on the $20 bill, damned if no one bothers to put her on the $20 bill. When Trump Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin - as expected - pulled the departing President Obama plan for Tubman’s legacy on the currency, it was widely viewed as a petty snub and wanton disrespect by most. Now, with the old (fascist) regime gone, it’s still a problem … for actually reviving and going through with the original plan.
No one is happy because the many in the community are in a perpetual state of saltiness.
It is absolutely urgent that Tubman be placed on a $20 bill. A society’s currency is not just about money or valuation or markets - even though, yes, all of that is a big part of it, sure. But, currency, and the names and faces of famous people on that currency, is also a statement and a standard. It is that nation-state struggling to form some kind of consensus around a community storyline that’s reflective of that history and the truths - good, bad and ugly - within it. We’ve finally recognized a national conversation that American history is full of half-witted white supremacist mythology, and that we’re ready to radically change that and push for the full, unadulterated truth. So, here’s a big moment to change all that. Here we have a chance to make a big first step in that direction and some want to, out of a need for selfish digital melee, sabotage that moment.
Scotty Hendricks in Big Think makes a good point on the meaningful, non-capitalist value of common currency …
… [W]e all agree that people who are on money must be important. Even if a child was to look at a dollar bill and not know who was on it, they can understand that this person must be significant. By placing certain people on the currency, we are making a cultural choice to say that we value their achievements and may inspire people to look into who they were and what they did.
His line of thinking harkens back to Plato, who told us in Republic that "What is honored in a society will be produced there."
To return to the issue of putting Harriet Tubman on the twenty, plenty of commentators have pointed out how Andrew Jackson — who has been on the twenty since 1928 after replacing Grover Cleveland — was a genocidal, pro-slavery maniac who caused a bank panic through his insane policies and introduced the spoils system. At a certain point, we do have to ask ourselves how much we still like the guy and if we want him on our most commonly used bill.
Most Americans, simply accepting that Jackson’s current face on the $20 bill, don’t even know who he was or how heinous a president he was. Therein lies a big part of the problem: Americans are dangerously illiterate when it comes to knowing their national history. It’s the reason why we are where are now and thousands of White people stormed the U.S. Capitol last month and flew Confederate flags inside of it. They have absolutely no appreciation for how horrific slavery was, no clue about the dark, grisly and racist history that led us into a Civil War, what happened to Reconstruction and the Jim Crow years that followed. Here we have results from a 2019 Washington Post poll on that …
These numbers are tragic and horrifying. We can’t expect any progress or (chuckle) “unity” if we’re not all on the same page about very basic and core historical facts. Too many Americans see justifiable Black grievance as merely Black people whining about “race” - yet, if we all had a deeper non-whitewashed understanding of the history, we’d all probably be in a much better and less racist state.
The history of General Tubman is a solid first step history lesson all Americans should be forced to grapple with when they’re pulling cash from their wallet. And, why not now have White families pressed to tell their kids when they ask “who is that Black woman on the $20 bill?” and commence a difficult journey or put pressure on classrooms to correctly answer it. Better a priority history lesson on Tubman than one on Andrew Jackson. Either we do want everyone getting these essential history lessons or we don’t … and, if we don’t, we carry on at great peril to ourselves. If Tubman can have a statue (shown above) in the capitol of the state where she was enslaved (Maryland), just across from state brethren Frederick Douglass, well then she can be honored similarly on American currency so the entire planet knows who she is and what she fought for. We should be making every effort to actively deprogram the racist mindset that’s plagued Americans like a disease for centuries, one social studies textbook re-write and Harriet Tubman bill at a time. Why not?