Tubman $20: Not About Harriet
Two and a half women started something that has nothing to do with the black women fantasy of being honored
I have never been a fan of putting Tubman on the $20, especially at a time when the lives of black people today are of no more value to this country than when she lived. Like many others, I thought this had something to do with appeasing black people and instead, is causing more division in race relations—some vowing to exchange that $20 bill for other denominations rather than use it. Also, I assumed there had to be a black organization or group behind this whole unnecessary debate since the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) praised Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew’s plans to replace Jackson with Tubman in 2016.
It would be worthy of a debate if this idea of Tubman on the $20 had anything whatsoever to do with honoring a Black woman or as a gesture to improve relationships between the United States and African Americans. It may even be more considerable if it were the CBC or another black group who started all this, but I found it disturbing that this all stems from two and a half white women with nothing better to do!
In 2012, a campaign called "Women on 20s" was started by Barbara Ortiz Howard, owner of an exterior restoration company, Susan Ades Stone, a journalist who once worked for CNN, and 9-year-old Sofia, a Massachusetts 4th grader who was inspired to write President Obama when supposedly she realized, during a class history project, there were not enough women represented on US currency.
Sparked by the little girl’s letter to President Obama, Barbara, and Susan ignited a national petition to put a woman on the $20 bill by 2020 commemorating the centennial of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote in 1920. The two women asked for voters to choose three of 15 historical females to portray on the $20 bill. The candidates were Alice Paul, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, Sojourner Truth, Rachel Carson, Rosa Parks, Barbara Jordan, Margaret Sanger, Patsy Mink, Clara Barton, Harriet Tubman, Frances Perkins, Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation, was added to the list later.
It was the perfect time to push this agenda; we had a black president, the economy was recovering, race relations were improving, and women were breaking political ceilings. Including African American women and an indigenous native strengthened the validity for the demands of their petition calling on President Obama “to order the Secretary of the Treasury to change the current portrait on the $20 banknote to reflect the remarkable accomplishments of an exemplary American woman who has helped shape our Nation's great history.”
However, when Steven Mnuchin became Treasury Secretary in 2017, he immediately announced he could not commit to putting Tubman on the $20 bill because the Bureau of Engraving and Printing was already in the process of redesigning the $10 bill, which is set to be released into circulation in 2026—Hamilton remaining on the front, replacing the Treasury building with a group of suffrage leaders on the back. The Tubman Twenty, if at all, will circulate no earlier than 2028. So, the resurfacing of the delay should not be a surprise, nor need of any further investigation in 2019. However, the current administration’s adamant focus on more detrimental issues like "deportation," which is starting to look like the ethnic cleansing of the 1830s “Trail of Tears” executed by Andrew Jackson himself, is far more worthy of investigation.
As far as the image is concerned, Donald Trump, who thinks highly of Andrew Jackson, described the redesign of the $20 bill with Tubman's image as "pure political correctness," and suggested she be put on the $2 bill instead. Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former White House staffer, wrote in her book Unhinged that when Trump was shown an image of Harriet Tubman, his response was: "You want me to put that face on the $20 bill?"
My internal reaction to immortalizing Tubman on the most visible currency in the country, matched Donald Trump’s verbal statement because, at the end of the day, that’s all it will boil down to—that face. Harriet’s battered image is a painful reminder of the overworked, never-paid, beaten-down, black woman in American history. No one will bother to know who she was in the same way no one bothers to know anything about Andrew Jackson, the 300 plus slaves he owned, the slaves he hunted and tortured, nor his horrendous enforcement of marching tens of thousands of indigenous natives off their land. Above all, there will be no regard for the irony of placing the worst nightmare of her times forever on her back instead of completely removing him from the bill.
If this were about us, there’s no question that the first black president of the United States, is a phenomenal breakthrough in American history, and by the standards of the Treasury selection process, there’s no doubt that Barack Obama has earned his place on the face of a banknote in the traditions of the Treasury Department. Except for Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin, and eight others including Salmon P. Chase on the $10,000 bill, Presidents are the only ones featured on US currency. However, thanks to Spenser M. Clark, Superintendent of the National Currency Bureau in 1862, and, later, Salmon P. Chase putting their own images on a US bill during their terms, changes were made to the law that no living person may be depicted on US currency.
But, if the all-male tradition is to be broken, why not break the "No Living Person" tradition as well, and start with a worthy first lady, who has changed the nation's so-called great history. Like her husband, Michelle is a phenomenal first, too; first black First Lady who is an exemplary American woman with remarkable accomplishments of her own. But the truth is, she won’t be the first woman or president’s wife on a banknote since Martha Washington donned the $1 bill back in 1886.
Besides, Black women are beautifully displayed on many currencies in various denominations from many prominent countries that do respect and honor us, and I’m not talking about Cousin Canada either, though they managed to put civil rights activist Viola Desmond, a black Canadian businesswoman, on their $10 bill in 2018. Beautiful though her portrait may be, her story also is one of struggle and discrimination, an ongoing story we all know still too well.
Replacing Jackson with Tubman on the $20 is not about honoring Harriet, and it means nothing for us as black women. What would mean something would be to stop killing our sons in the streets; and to improve relationships between the United States and African Americans, would be to give us that 160 acres of land that was handed out to white folks for free under Andrew Jackson’s Homestead Act after the Trail of Tears, which was secretly in effect until 1988—keep the mule.