I must admit I was quite perplexed when I saw on Twitter the announcement that the United States Treasury Department was placing Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. I was conflicted. The root of my consternation seemed to be in what I saw as a clash of symbols. To me our currency always symbolized capitalism and the the power to trade, buy and sell. For me, Harriet Tubman represents the resistance to buying and trading slaves—humans that the government at the time deemed as commodities.
For me Harriet Tubman was a prophet of emancipation who served and serves as a sign of the liberating work in the world against institutionalized oppression. Prophets stand in opposition to institutions, don’t they? Prophets often rail against the culture and surely against the status quo. In fact, Harriet Tubman was such an oppositional figure for the old south, a $40,000 reward was offered for her capture! So I questioned, is the Treasury Department attempting to commodify the great liberator?
So I decided to visit the Treasury Department’s site and read the letter that Secretary Jacob Lew posted providing the rationale for the choice of Harriet Tubman to be placed on the $20 bill.
Here are five things that particularly intrigued me about the process and choice.
A Groundswell of Responses. In 2015 Secretary Lew announced that a newly redesigned $10 note would feature a woman. He “hoped to encourage a national conversation about women in our democracy.” The Department of Treasury received over a million responses. Through traditional media as well as social media, Americans joined the conversation.
Re-visioned Value. At this time, the U.S. Treasury department has seven banknotes in circulation: The $1, $2, $5, $10, $50 and $100 bills. Of those seven, five hold the faces of past US. Presidents, the others hold faces of two other “founding fathers.” Rather than perpetuate the past patterns of placing the images of only white men upon our currency, many respondents proposed that “our new currency highlight democracy in action and reflect the diversity” of our nation.
The Voice of Children. Although the decision to place Harriet Tubman on the new $20 was “driven by thousands of responses” received from “Americans young and old,” Secretary Lew was particularly struck by the many comments and reactions he received from children. For these children the Secretary wrote, “Harriet Tubman is not just a historical figure, but a role model for leadership and participation in our democracy.”
More Stories to Come. Apparently the process of hearing from the people of the U.S. grew so great and “countless individuals who contributed to our democracy” were nominated. The U.S. Treasury will now share the stories of many of these inspirational people on its website modernmoney.treasury.gov.
The Irony of the Symbol. I didn’t get this last tidbit from Secretary Lew’s open letter but from NPR’s site. The activist group Women on 20s pushed for Tubman to replace Jackson on the $20 bill and sent a petition to President Obama. They noted that Tubman’s appearance on the $20 bill would have historical significance because her monthly pension from the U.S. government for her service during the Civil War was $20. Hmm.
Tubman once said, “Every great dream begins with a dreamer.” I’m sure she never dreamed of this day! As for me, every time I handle that $20 bill I will be reminded of Harriet Tubman’s leadership in very concrete and material ways. I will be reminded of how she resisted the worst of this country by supporting the best.
It does pains me to reflect on our history. And it pains me even more to see the racism and sexism of this era. Yet the U.S. is not the same country that it was when Harriet Tubman led so many to freedom. And the fact of the matter is, she fought alongside the government which fought against slavery. Ours is and always has been an imperfect Union. But it is our Union.
So yes, I celebrate the legacy of Harriet Tubman even in the contradiction. Hurrah for Harriet as a symbol of freedom and focus on a more inclusive democracy for us all.