Op/ed: Would Harriet Tubman Be Happy?


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Recently, the U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew announced that the United States would feature Harriet Tubman on the next $20 bill, replacing president and slave owner Andrew Jackson. The new bill is scheduled to debut in 2020 to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of women winning the right to vote.

Some have celebrated this as a much overdue recognition of an American hero, specifically a woman. Others found it uncalled for. Harriet Tubman fought the type of oppression that launched the United States economy. And, now, she is being plastered on money.

As writer Feminista Jones said in her viral essay, women of color should not be on American currency. She wrote:

Harriet Tubman did not fight for capitalism, free trade, or competitive markets. She repeatedly put herself in the line of fire to free people who were treated as currency themselves. She risked her life to ensure that enslaved black people would know they were worth more than the blood money that exchanged hands to buy and sell them. I do not believe Tubman, who died impoverished in 1913, would accept the “honor.”

Tubman saved over 300 slaves, leading them to freedom through the Underground Railroad. The idea of putting someone who was once a slave, and in that a form of human currency, on a dollar bill does seem a strange and even inappropriate “honor.”

Another writer, Zoe Samudzi, also believed the bill would disrespect Tubman:

I’d imagine the Treasury aren’t masters of irony, but I’m mulling over the irony of a black woman who was bought and sold being ‘commemorated’ on the $20 bill (without also taking steps for economic recompense for black folks who are descendants of enslaved peoples) and I can’t stop shaking my head.

For those that do support the bill, there’s still the worry that it isn’t quite enough – Andrew Jackson will not be removed from the bill; rather he will be featured on the back.

While I understand the backlash from those in the Jones and Samudzi camp, I would argue that Tubman would support the new bill. As writer Jackie Calmes claimed, this bill will be a celebration of our “multicultural, multiethnic, and multiracial nation.” Tubman would be the first woman to appear on U.S. currency in over a century, and the first black woman on currency in history.

We have a dark history, and removing Andrew Jackson from the bill is a move in the right direction, despite the fact that he will remain on the back of the bill. We have commemorated and honored Harriet Tubman in numerous ways over the years, but placing her on one of the most highly circulated pieces of currency is yet another accolade she deserves. While the politics of such a decision can be complicated, in some sense, it’s simple: Harriet Tubman deserves to be celebrated. This is one way we can celebrate her. We need to stop fighting over the specifics of this change and focus on the overall message, which is a message of acceptance, hope, unity, and equality.


Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

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