HARRIET TUBMAN ON THE $20 BILL: A SIGN OF PROGRESS OR DISRESPECT?
Written by Antonia Trevini
“I ask no favour for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks” – Sarah Grimké on Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman (1837).
After an era of Trumpism that has left a nation ideologically divided and deeply devastated, in an attempt to address the issue of racial disparities and representation, the Biden administration has decided to take over and accelerate the initiative of former President Obama to replace Andrew Jackson, supporter of slavery extension, on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman, heroine of the Underground Rail Road who rescued dozens of people from a lifetime of enslavement.
This proposal was announced in 2016 during the Obama administration by then treasurer Jacob Lew, based on a growing demand from a great part of the American population to create a currency that could represent the history and diversity of a nation. Consolidated by the results of a survey, H. Tubman was not only regarded as a historical figure but, above all, as a model of leadership and democratic participation since she was also a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War and an activist for women’s right to vote.
The launch of the new dollar bill was set for the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. Tubman would have been the first woman to appear on an American currency since the First Lady Martha Washington, who appeared on the $1 silver certificate in the late 1800s. Unfortunately, the Trump administration stopped this initiative, deeming it unnecessary and postponing its implementation.
Nonetheless, as New Hampshire’s United States Senator, Jeanne Shaheen, told NBC News in an interview: “Our paper currency is how we measure value in our society, and the fact that we haven’t had any women on our paper currency is a suggestion that we don’t value the contributions of women in the way that we should…Having Harriet Tubman on the $20 shows that we value what she did, that we value women, that we value people of color”.
But, what story does the American dollar tell now?
First of all, Andrew Jackson is not the only President represented on the American currency that tells a false narrative of American freedom and equity for all. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave owners and persecutors, while Alexander Hamilton and Ulysses S. Grant made a fortune off their plantations, even though they abhor the institution of slavery. Although his contribution in the battle for the 13th amendments that abolished slavery, Abram Lincoln didn’t support equal rights for black and white people and used emancipation as a military policy to win the Civil War.
In a January 2021 article for Time, Brittney Cooper, professor at Rutgers University, reminds how Black people’s images were already portrayed on Confederacy notes in 1861 in the act of picking cotton and considers disrespectful the idea of using Harriet Tubman’s face on a currency. It recalls the immoral indentured servitude perpetuated against black people, deprived of their freedom and used as legal tender by white owners. Those same notes also represent an economic system that takes roots in the importation and exploitation of human slavery, institutionalised for decades by the American government, which drove the Souther agricultural economy on one side and the Northern trade and banking industries on the other, creating wealth at the expense of black people. Besides, Jim Crow segregation policies and subsequent racial persecutions and discriminations deprived African American families of equal opportunities, relegating black people to the margin of the economy and of the society, enduring into today’s wealth gap which penalises particularly black women.
As research from 2017 concerning Women, race and wealth explained, “For every dollar of wealth owned by the typical white family, the median black family owns only five cents”. Wealth differs dramatically between men and women. Despite the growing number of Black women in education, working in management and professional jobs, they still encounter greater obstacles to building wealth due to pay inequality but also wealth inequality. The research also added how a college degree and marriage, generally regarded as means of wealth for women, often fails black women and the Covid-19 recession has widened the gender wealth gap, as Black families have faced larger job losses and economic distress during this pandemic.
Would H. Tubman $20 bill really value women, Black women and Black History?
As Robert Reich explains in his book How to save capitalism, the American economic system was never designed to include nor to be accessible for everyone. Capitalism, based on a free market, operates on rules imposed by the government whose regulation mainly reflects the interests of those in power and those who finance them. Consequently, it can change overtime as we have seen with the abolition of slavery and slaves as property.
However, we still live in a polarised society composed of few wealthy people and a vast majority of poorer Americans who have been left behind due to lack of investment by policymakers, particularly into wealth equality and racial justice, denying equal opportunities to entire communities. People’s frustration often turns into resentment and anger and we have seen how these feelings have been subjected to manipulation and used to drive people against each other, especially against immigrants and black minorities becoming the target of hatred and violence.
Therefore, putting Harriet Tubman on the 20$ bill will never repay the historical damages that America has inflicted on Black people for generations and neither will give value nor become a form of representation of women’s contribution to the foundation of American democracy. What American women and Black people deserve is a more diversified representation within their own institutions. Kamala Harris being the first African American and Asian American vice president is just one step towards such a mindset. As Ruth B. Ginsburg said: “In our society enduring change happens one step at the time”. If having Harriet Tubman on a currency is a symbolic act that anticipates this administration’s real commitment to addressing systematic inequalities and barriers into the decision-making process towards fair and equitable policies for all races and genders, then America may be on the right path towards a rightful acknowledgment of women, and Black people’s democratic contribution to the nation.