They better use the du-rag.
That’s the only real fret I’ve had over Harriet Tubman’s role as the face of the $20 bill: hoping and wishing that the white folks at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing will choose a portrait that includes Minty’s trademark 19th-century headwrap, thus letting her style on these haters.
Other than that, I’ve got nothing.
No anger or cries of injustice or disrespect inflicted upon Tubman’s legacy. No belief that this money-swap is political foundation meant to conceal the scars of America’s pockmarked identity. A few dashes of pepper finding its way into the salt shaker of our national currency doesn’t quite make me believe a change gon’ come.
The Tubman twenty is like a Hallmark Mahogany sympathy card, with 'I’m here for you if you need me — America' scribbled at the bottom.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew confirmed our currency’s new cosmetics last Wednesday. Along with the new twenty, he described a redesign of the $5 bill that will include activists Martin Luther King, Marian Anderson, and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt; and a $10 bill redesign that will see suffragists (and occasional racists) Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton join Sojourner Truth to replace the image of the treasury building on the bill’s backside. Ironically, blackness will keep Alexander Hamilton on the face of the $10 bill. The success and popularity of Pulitzer Prize winning Broadway hip-hop drama Hamilton has made the founder of our nation’s banking system more popular than ever and ultimately saved him from the cutting block.
The changes have been described by some as “the most sweeping facelift of our nation’s currency in a lifetime.” It has been described by me as “cute.”
The Tubman twenty is like a Hallmark Mahogany sympathy card, with "I’m here for you if you need me — America" scribbled at the bottom. This card will not and cannot seriously be expected to do jack shit in terms of changing, fixing, or assuaging—anything. But you appreciate it because it’s a nice gesture. You even maybe extra-appreciate it because this is a Mahogany, and a Mahogany tells you 90 seconds was spent in the greeting card aisle instead of 30. Cute.
For some though, recognizing this particular card brings on a few qualms.
Some feel an uneasiness that the symbolism of “honoring” Tubman by plastering her face on the legal tender representing the system that once rewarded her bondage has existed alongside praise for the idea since her name was first introduced a year ago:
“Tubman didn’t respect America’s economic system, so making her a symbol of it would be insulting,” wrote Feminista Jones in a May 2015 op-ed.
“Why cheapen her by putting her on the face on the 20 dollar bill—the very symbol of the racialized capitalism she was fleeing…. Putting Tubman’s face on the $20 would only obfuscate how much exploitation there is still left to fight in America,” says Guardian U.S. writer Steven Thrasher.
These questions are valid in the same way that asking why someone would offer a sympathy card to help you feel better when Riesling, a $5 Big Boxes from Popeyes, and sour diesel exist. Technically, "Really, bruh. A card?" is a justifiable reaction. But that doesn’t mean it’s an appropriate reaction.
Jones and Thrasher’s points are thoughtful. They are also inappropriately reductive and too cynical for what should be a moment of at least casual celebration.
And anyway, are we certain Tubman’s opposition to slavery came hand-in-hand with opposition to American capitalism? Experts say that it’s unlikely. Kate Larson, an American historian and Harriet Tubman scholar told Vox that Tubman most likely held economic strength in high regard: “She was an early business woman. And she knew that economic power meant freedom as well. And so she used her own self-determination to give herself economic power…. Putting her on the $20 validates all of her efforts toward self-determination and economic power.”
Tubman fronting the $20 bill is one less symbolic slap in the face to millions of Americans living now and the countless marginalized heroes who helped build the nation. Unlike the current iteration prominently featuring super-predator presidential stain Andrew Jackson, a Tubman-faced $20 isn’t a vessel for scorn, mockery, and shame. This is one less Confederate flag. One less J. Edgar Hoover Building. One less Calhoun College. This is #BlackGirlMagic usurping white supremacy.
There’s something acutely sobering about Tubman—an abolitionist, humanitarian, suffragist, and soldier—adorning a symbol of what has made America simultaneously powerful and perverse. The machinery of America’s great success is lubricated with black plunder and terror. The dollar has power because of women like Tubman.
And yet the fact remains that Tubman’s face appearing on money has about as much a chance of changing America as Black History Month or MLK Day. Should that render this moment insignificant or insipid? The monster of capitalism is too big to forget or ignore. A Tubman bill won’t change the reality of the gender pay gap or the destruction of the African-American family at the hands of big-business mass incarceration. Eyes are not being taken off the prize and the truth is not being erased, co-opted or sterilized.
Thanks for the card, America. But next time how about you just throw us a few Tubs?