But America’s money tells a tale of power, as well as subjugation — the subjugation of women, the subjugation of people of color, and the subjugation of history. America’s money tells a tale of inequality. The delay in placing Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill speaks to that subjugation.
It’s telling that the President has responded to anti-racist protesters who have torn down Confederate statues in recent weeks by swiftly signing an executive order to protect the monuments of men who fought to preserve slavery at the expense of the union.
There is often a misunderstanding that only presidents appear on our notes, but there is no such requirement. Neither Benjamin Franklin, who graces the $100 bill, nor Alexander Hamilton, who is featured on the $10 bill, ever served as president. Neither did Salmon P. Chase, Martha Washington, Sacagawea, John Marshall, Susan B. Anthony, William Sherman, Joseph Mansfield, William Marcy or George Meade — all of whom have appeared on various denominations of United States currency. I challenge you to identify the contributions of all the aforementioned without the help of a search engine.
But it’s not logic that dictates the delay. It is a myopic, one-sided view of history, and a seeming disregard for the symbolism behind the selection of Harriet Tubman.
Harriet Tubman represents but one instance where the lioness might finally get the glory of a full telling of the history.
Our currency could help tell that story to the world — indeed it could be a testament to our principles and ideals. It is a symbol that not only represents our actual wealth but also symbolizes who we believe best reflects our values. We have the opportunity to put our money where our mouth is, and let it speak to those values.
America would be wise to show the world what it really stands for. Right now, we are showing the world that we value Confederate generals who tried to tear apart the nation more than freedom fighters. Right now, we are showing the world that we honor those who championed slavery — instead of those who fought against it. Right now, we are showing the world that America doesn’t believe that a heroic Black woman is worthy of occupying space on our currency.
In fact, we are showing that she is unworthy of even sharing that space with a white man who died believing her oppression was just. Remember, the redesign doesn’t remove Andrew Jackson, it simply places him on the back, with Tubman on the front. What we are showing the world is that we are slaves to our history, not students of it, impotent against inanimate bronze representations of unrighteous men long deceased. What we are showing is that we mistake evolution of thought for erasure of heritage.
While history and its legacy can never be erased, neither is IT the sole determinate of our future. When it comes to showing the world who we are, and what we stand for, we need only to apply the law of inertia that says an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. Simply put, American progress will be forever stymied unless and until we remove the unbalanced force that glorifies those who have betrayed our ideals.
Now, there are those who will suggest that this is much ado about nothing. That Tubman’s placement on the $20 bill is a meaningless gesture that rings hollow, given more pressing matters like police brutality and a public health crisis. But symbolism is a catalyst for change, not a nod to frivolity.
As a nation, we are keenly aware of the power of symbolism. We are asked to pledge allegiance to the flag and to the republic for which it stands. From the image of Ruby Bridges being escorted to school by four federal marshals to Emmett Till’s open casket to a black-gloved fist raised on an Olympic podium to George Floyd’s chilling last words only a month ago, his neck pressed for nearly nine minutes beneath a police officer’s knee: “I can’t breathe,” America has always been aware of the power of imagery in advancing civil rights on the world stage. America has a choice to use that imagery for good or for evil.
Money talks. Why should America be silent when the world is listening?