Global Independent Analytics

The irony of putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill

Anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman will be the first woman to appear on a US banknote for more than a century

Danielle Paquette for The Washington Post reports:  after the U.S. Treasury had announced it will put Harriet Tubman on the front of the new $20 bill, replacing the slave owner Andrew Jackson, some applauded the move as overdue recognition of an American hero. Others found it insulting to Tubman’s legacy — and frankly ironic. The abolitionist icon, after all, fought the oppressive system that launched our economy. Why would she want to become a symbol of it?

The discussion started last year when it was announced that in order to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of women winning the right to vote, a woman should appear on the redesigned $10 bill, scheduled to arrive in 2020.

Paquette continues: “As chatter grew about why Tubman should become the first woman to grace our paper currency — accompanied by a simultaneous activist-run web campaign to get a woman on the $20 bill — writer Feminista Jones presented a controversial counter-argument in an essay that went viral. There’s no place for women, especially women of color, she asserted, on America’s money.

Wrote Jones: Harriet Tubman did not fight for capitalism, free trade, or competitive markets. She repeatedly put herself in the line of fire to free people who were treated as currency themselves. She risked her life to ensure that enslaved black people would know they were worth more than the blood money that exchanged hands to buy and sell them. I do not believe Tubman, who died impoverished in 1913, would accept the “honor.”

Historians say that Tubman, who was born and raised a slave, ran away when she was 19 to save her sister’s family from slavery. For the next decade, she guided more than 300 slaves to freedom, risking her life and freedom over 19 trips.

Her image will not appear on the $10 bill which will be the first redesign, coming to wallets in 2020. Instead of it, she will relegate Jackson on the back of the $20 bill, becoming a new face of it. A Treasury spokesperson, however, did not elaborate on when, exactly, the redesigned bill will come out.

Paquette assumes: “Zoe Samudzi, a feminist writer in Oakland, promptly told her 14,300 Twitter followers Wednesday the Treasury got it wrong. Tubman, she wrote, was bought and sold as a commodity. And the government celebrates her by… putting her on money?

“I'd imagine the Treasury aren't masters of irony,” Samudzi told The Post in an email, “but I’m mulling over the irony of a black woman who was bought and sold being ‘commemorated’ on the $20 bill (without also taking steps for economic recompense for black folks who are descendants of enslaved peoples) and I can't stop shaking my head.”

However, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, a professor of history and African-American studies at Harvard University, saw the development as positive. Tubman wasn’t against money, she said. She spent it to pry others from slave owners. “She used hers to go back into a place where she had a bounty on her head,” Higginbotham said. “It says something about how she thinks about money. She used money as a way to help mankind.” (At the end of her life, it turns out, Tubman received a pension check every month for being both a veteran and the widow of a veteran. The amount? $20.)”

Some wonder if a woman will ever replace one of the paper Founding Father: such a procedure is very slowly moving, although it indicates progress in accepting women as equals.

 

By Stefan Paraber for GIA.

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