America Doesn’t DESERVE Harriet Tubman’s Face on its Money

By S. Christopher Emerson

This week, non-profit grassroots organization Women on 20s announced that Harriet Tubman had won their online survey exploring what woman’s image should be placed on the US $20 bill. Of the more than 600,000 votes cast, Mama Harriet finished with a total of 118,328 votes. She edged out Eleanor Roosevelt, who garnered 111,227 votes. On its website, Women on 20s states that it aims to compel historic change by convincing President Obama that now is the time to put a woman’s face on our paper currency.

Rosa Parks came in 3rd in the survey with 64,173 votes. Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to become the Cherokee Nation’s chief, finished fourth with 58,703. Others on the ballot included Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Clara Barton and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

The Women on 20s website explains the timeline, “Over a period of 10 weeks, more than 600,000 people cast votes and Harriet Tubman emerged as the winner. On May 12, 2015, Women on 20s presented a petition to President Obama informing him of the results of the election and encouraging him to instruct Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew to use his authority to make this change in time to have a new bill in circulation before the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2020.”

Many people are conflicted about this change. We believe that America SHOULD recognize a Black woman of the stature and significance of Mama Harriet Tubman. But we don’t feel like America DESERVES to have Mama Harriet’s face on their money.

Mama Harriet represents boldness, courage, intelligence, strategy, a take-not-be-given attitude, and an unrelenting push for freedom. She has helped to (literally) move Black people, and therefore this country forward toward equality, justice, and ending of racism and oppression. She breaks stereotypes of what and who women are supposed to be, having told a fellow escapee who had second thoughts, “If you turn back now, I’ll shoot you where you stand.” Mama Harriet exemplifies the saying from our elders, that “America is far more that its European heritage.”

But on the other hand, we know America. We know that it hasn’t learned to see and treat people with equity and dignity. As a matter of fact, America is FIGHTING to remain unjust, unequitable, racist, oppressive, capitalist and European-dominated- right now. America was born out of greed. Refugees fled Europe as subjects of oppression, so that they could squat here and become oppressors, free from European molestation. And it cut its teeth on the institution of slavery, which fed the monster’s greed for money, control and power. It has since spread its pestilence around the world, creating colonies, protectorates and vacation destinations for its own pleasure.

The paper currency that Women on 20s wants to place Mama Harriet’s face is a representation of the enslavement that set the stage for Mama Harriet’s story. She stole away to escape white people and institutions who kept her in bondage to gain more of that currency.

It denigrates the memory and work of Mama Harriet to place her face on one of the very things which America used and STILL uses to oppress us.

This is a teachable moment. If the treasury makes the change, it gives Black people a grand Black image and example in heavy circulation to be proud of. But also, putting Mama Harriet’s image on the money will show the status quo that things are changing and that their way of  thinking and treating human beings isn’t good enough. The change puts the history of Black people and slavery (notice that we separated them) in America’s face. It’s a challenge for America to accept its savage and oppressive dealings, and an opportunity for it to change about-face- to be worthy of being represented by such an exalted icon of freedom as Mama Harriet.

But we have to be wary of cultural appropriation, which America does so well. The status quo will say, “Harriet Tubman is a representation of the best of America…” which is ridiculous. We can say: “Mama Harriet Tubman represents the best that Black people and humanity have to offer, IN SPITE of America.”

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