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Putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill reflects our past and our future
America just became a slightly more equitable society.
The U.S. Treasury just announced that Harriet Tubman will grace the new $20 bill replacing President Andrew Jackson. And in an instant America became a slightly more equitable society.
Last June, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said he wanted to replace Alexander Hamilton—America’s first secretary of the Treasury—on the $10 bill, and rumors have been circulating for a while that a woman would replace him on the note. But the popularity of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Hamilton apparently made the prospect of removing him from the bill untenable.
So if Hamilton had to stay then Jackson obviously had to go.
Benjamin Franklin, who is on the $100 bill, is the only other non-president on U.S. currency, but there is no way in the world that American society would choose Jackson over a founding father. The next person in line would have been President Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill, and while he might not have been the greatest president, he did help win the Civil War and preserve the Union alongside President Abraham Lincoln.
The other faces on our notes are all former presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. Clearly none of them were going to be replaced. Honestly, when you look at the notable Americans on our bills and coins, you begin to wonder how Jackson found himself on our currency in the first place.
When you look at the notable Americans on our bills and coins, you begin to wonder how Jackson found himself on our currency in the first place.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt is featured on the dime, and Dwight D. Eisenhower is on an obsolete $1 coin. There is a woman, Susan B. Anthony, depicted on another defunct $1 coin.
Yet if you look at American currency as a whole, it becomes evident that each American on our currency guided this nation forward and through troublesome times.
Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Hamilton were founding fathers. Lincoln and Grant guided the nation through our deadliest war and fought for the emancipation of black Americans. FDR and Eisenhower led America through the “war to end all wars.” And John F. Kennedy, who graces the 50-cent coin, represented the dawning of the civil rights era at the presidential level.
Older members of my family proudly recall Kennedy as being the first president that they can remember who seemed to truly care about the lives of black people. His assassination, alongside Robert F. Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s are still incredibly emotional for African Americans of that era.
When you look at the tapestry of U.S. currency and see the American faces that we choose to project to the world, it becomes abundantly clear that Tubman deserves her place alongside the pantheon of great Americans.
Likewise, Jackson with his avowed racism and slave owning should no longer be deemed worth celebrating. Jackson not only owned upwards to 300 slaves during his lifetime, but he forcefully removed indigenous Americans from their land. Jackson is arguably most known for the genocidal Trail of Tears, where he disregarded the Supreme Court’s ruling that said that the Cherokee Indians of Georgia had the right to stay. Instead Jackson challenged the court to enforce their ruling. One out of every four Cherokees died during this forced march West.
Tubman is the antithesis of the era and morality that Jackson represents.
In many ways, the selection of Tubman represents the significance of the current era of American society where the quest for a more equitable society for all people regardless of race, gender and sexual orientation has become the defining political cause.
Yet the most progressive aspect of the modern day era of America has been the unavoidable infusion of black life and culture into the homes of all Americans.
Prior to President Barack Obama’s presidency, non-black households in America could easily exist without understanding the history, struggles, and humanity of black American life. Black life to non-black Americans could easily consist of the news that regularly depicted black Americans as dangerous criminals. Of course there would always be the handful of depictions of positive black life that could be found on TV, the occasional African American you may have befriended in school, but these examples never represented as the norm. They were always the exception. Black Americans could easily be perceived as a dangerous, foreign element within American society and the positive representations were regarded as anomalies
Throughout much of my youth, many Americans—mostly white Americans—regarded me as the positive anomaly within their negative perception and expectation of black Americans. These Americans were unaware that they dehumanized me in their attempt to compliment me. And this is the blindingly oppressive, and dehumanize mindset that Jackson represents.
Tubman is the antithesis of the era and morality that Jackson represents.
However, today, Americans cannot avoid black existence. The image of the Obama family gets injected into American homes on a daily basis. The Black Lives Matter movement has become today’s civil rights movement. Blacks, whites and Americans of countless backgrounds have joined BLM’s fight for equality and an end to injustice and police brutality.
Americans, of all races and cultures, now have to to confront their racial biases because these prejudices are harder to ignore. More interracial couplings and friendships have been formed now than at any previous time in American history. Historical movies do more than just parrot America’s uplifting narratives or enforce the white savior complex. A movie about a slave rebellion—Nate Parker’s The Birth of A Nation—was the most talked about movie at the Sundance film festival this year. The musical Hamilton consists of an all-black cast reimagining a white American world in a fashion that our society had never previously imagined or thought possible, and it has been embraced by Americans from all walks of life.
The humanity of black American life has become an integral and unavoidable part of our society, and with the acceptance of the humanity of black life comes the requirement to re-examine American history and champion those who fought against oppression instead of those who oppressed.
Tubman represents this requisite re-examination that is essential for the progress of American society. Jackson was a representation of the abhorrent American morals that are better left in the past.
Tubman replacing Jackson on the $20 bill is not just a progressive step for women and African Americans, but serves as a vital indicator of the honest, just, and equitable future America wants to create.
Barrett Holmes Pitner is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist and columnist who focuses mostly on race, culture, and politics, but also loves to dabble in sports, entertainment and business. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, National Journal, the Institute for War & Peace Reporting and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @BarrettPitner or visit his websitebarrettholmespitner.com.
Barrett Holmes Pitner is a politics and race-and-culture journalist, and an adjunct professor in the department of Environmental Studies at SUNY-ESF. He is based in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @barrettpitner