Harriet Tubman and the Twenty Dollar Bill

The new American 20 dollar bill will feature Harriet Tubman on the front. A black abolitionist who may have saved more than a hundred slave lives will replace Andrew Jackson, now relegated to the back. Donald Trump is pissed off, of course. Most others are cheering a move that, although a long time coming, finally puts a black woman to prominence on US currency. A woman hasn’t graced any of America’s banknotes for 100 years. A person of colour – never. Surely there is lots to be happy about?

While it can be viewed as a great, if belated, move that finally draws attention to the fact that African Americans should no longer be overlooked in the history of the US, many are troubled by the decision. Surely, argue some, it is an affront to a woman who made repeated trips back south to free other slaves, and who instructed many on how to use the Underground Railroad, to make her share a note with a slave owner who signed the Indian Removal Act. On top of that, slaves were traded as currency. Is it not some sort of sick joke, then, to stick Tubman on the same bill for which she was once exchanged?

Back in May, when Harriet Tubman won the unofficial contest launched by Women on $20s, Steven Thrasher wrote a column in The Guardian denouncing the fight to get her face on the bill. He wrote, “Why cheapen her by putting her face on the 20 dollar bill – the very symbol of the radicalised capitalism she was fleeing?”

He didn’t want to see the same woman who was forced to save her own father with a 20 dollar bill appear as the face of the US treasury, being passed from hand to hand in transactions. He adds some extraordinary figures to his argument – white people have 12 times the wealth of black people. White people still have more access to wage labour. White people still live longer. It is not difficult to sympathise with his argument and see the perversity in using Tubman as the face of banks, who capitalised on the slave trade.

Other writers have similar views. In a piece for The Washington Post, Feminista Jones wrote:

“Her legacy is rooted in resisting the foundation of American capitalism. Tubman didn’t respect America’s economic system, so making her a symbol of it would be insulting.”

She continued,

“If having Harriet Tubman’s face on the $20 bill was going to improve women’s access to said bill, I’d be all for it. But instead, it only promises to distort Tubman’s legacy and distract from the economic issues that American women continue to face.”

Guardian writer Ijeoma Oluo echoes these thoughts.

“Yes, I do get some joy from knowing that white people have to look at Harriet Tubman’s proud and defiant black face every time they reach in their wallet. But the image of Tubman on our currency as some sort of corrective action for centuries of oppression and subjugation, or as a symbol of how far we’ve come in ending racism, is more symbolic of our fundamental misunderstanding of race in America.”

It is important to consider the deeper issues at play before rejoicing wildly at the announcement, that is clear. Although it is tempting to argue that the face of a black woman on American banknotes is nothing less than a cause for celebration, is it really what Tubman would have wanted?

And yet, surely all publicity is good publicity? If having her face on banknotes encourages people to talk about her, is that not a start?

Jill Tietjen was an advisor to the Women on 20s campaign. Speaking on the BBC World Service Programme, 'World Have Your say', she said:

“Harriet Tubman was a woman who escaped slavery. The bravery that she showed are hallmarks of how we see ourselves as Americans. Any woman on the 20 dollar bill is better than no woman. I think that is an acknowledgment that we as a country are honouring women on the currency and that we are putting that person into history.”

Steven Thrasher disagreed. Speaking on the same programme, he argued that unless this gesture was accompanied by reparations, it was entirely meaningless. “I’m worried about what it would mean to see this as a band aid fix,” he said.

Perhaps, as he added, a better way to honour her would be to put her name on a reparations act and start addressing the systemic inequality and economic exploitation of black people. Even those who do agree that putting Tubman’s face on the bill is a means of acknowledging African American history don't deny that there is still more to be done.

Despite this, Ijeoma Olou still doesn’t think this makes it an appropriate thing to do, and says that it entirely glosses over the fact that African Americans were exploited. Tying heroes to the very thing that oppressed them is not the best way to go about broaching history. “The truth is that Tubman was bought and sold for those same dollars that we are now putting her on,” she said, “and not only that but we are making her share that bill with a slaveholder.”

But simply putting white men on the bill will never bring progress, argue others. We have to work on the chessboard that has been set, surely? Or do we?

“For over 400 years,” argued Ijeoma, “We have been told that this is the system we have to play in and if we play it properly we will get somewhere, and that’s not the case. We need to look at the foundations that are keeping us oppressed and challenge that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking for more and asking for really substantive changes to the system - not just putting someone’s face on the dollar bill.”

Whatever your stance, in 2020, Harriet Tubman will appear on the front of the 20 dollar bill. But it isn’t enough. So in the meantime, we need to continue learning all of American history, and not just white, male American history as narrated from the white, male viewpoint.  More, too, needs to be done to make reparations. More needs to be done to address the fact that for every dollar a white man earns in the US, white women earn 78 cents, black women earn 64 cents and Hispanic women 54 cents. More needs to be done to address the fact that single black women have a median net worth of just $100. More needs to be done to address the fact that of the 104 women in the House of Representatives, only 18 are black and only one black woman has sat in the US Senate since it was founded.

Let’s not let the fact that a black woman born into slavery will be on the front of the bill mask the huge issue of racial inequality in America. Instead let’s use it to start talking seriously and frankly about the past, the present and the future.