But as long as Women on 20s is campaigning for a replacement — and if Harriet Tubman is the people’s choice — I’m all for it: She’s an American hero, and it’s about time another woman joined Susan B. Anthony and Sacajawea on our currency. It’s why I take a different view than Time’s Sierra Mannie, PostEverything’s Feminista Jones and The Root’s Kirsten West Savali, my friend and former colleague, who all believe Tubman on the $20 would be an affront. Because if we’re talking about American heroes, Tubman really is the gold standard.
That this is particularly controversial seems to miss the point.
Mannie calls it a “pat-on-the-back apology for being black,” but it’s really just the standard way that we honor people. Regardless of race, when your contributions to this country’s history are as consequential as Tubman’s — leading African Americans from slavery to freedom, spying for and fighting with the U.S. Army in the Civil War, advocating for women’s suffrage alongside Anthony — this is how you’re commemorated, or, at least, should be. You get a school named after you, maybe your own postage stamp, a biopic, a Google doodle on your birthday or — if there’s a vacancy — your face on the $20. If Tubman were somehow still alive, it’d be nice to see the first black president present her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but since that’s not possible, taking over for Jackson is it.
Savali writes that it’s an “insult” to depict Tubman on American money when black women earn 64 cents to every dollar earned by white men — a point that underscores the very real persistence of inequality, but one that doesn’t change the fact that we’re a thoroughly capitalist society, in which currency itself, for better or worse, holds an exalted place in our culture. A place where we recognize our first president and first Treasury secretary in a way that winds up being more prestigious for an American legend than having a national park or street bear their name.
And, depending on how you look at it, putting a self-emancipated, self-described conductor on the Underground Railroad on a $20 bill is sort of a fitting rebuke to the slave owners who bought and sold human beings as commercial property. They’re consigned to being known as the villains of history, while her portrait would be dispensed at every ATM in America.
Jones argues that because “America’s currency is viewed as a place to honor people of historic political influence” it’d be wrong to “suggest that black women are part of that club.” I don’t see it that way, though.
Slavery was and is as American as apple pie. But so was opposing it — even if America didn’t recognize it that way at that time — by any means necessary, including, in Tubman’s case, leading fellow African Americans to freedom under cover of night, on penalty of death and, as her story goes, armed with a pistol and giving orders to men. If you like analogies, she’s something like the black woman Paul Revere.
Jones is right that focusing on “the symbolism” of the $20 bill “risks masking inequalities that are far more important” in our society, throughout our history. And she’s right that Tubman was in it “to ensure that enslaved black people would know they were worth more than the blood money that exchanged hands to buy and sell them.” Not for accolades like having her visage printed on paper.
Maybe putting her on the $20 runs the risk of giving Americans a false sense of progress — that if Harriet Tubman is on a 20, then racism and sexism must be history. That’d be the wrong conclusion to draw, of course. But that risk doesn’t mean that, as Jones says, “until the economic injustice against women in America ends, no woman should” be pictured on legal tender. Let’s deal with that economic injustice, but understand that specifically not putting Tubman on the $20 bill won’t accomplish anything toward that end.
Even if the only thing a Tubman Twenty did was teach kids about an American hero other than President Abraham Lincoln or Benjamin Franklin, it’d be a worthwhile effort. That’s really all these types of honors are meant to do. And while I’d probably be fine if one of the other finalists — Eleanor Roosevelt, Wilma Mankiller, Rosa Parks — were pictured on a $20, there’s something about Tubman that just seems right.
As freedom fighters go, she was money.