The American Robin Hood is going to be honored on our currency. Harriet Tubman is apparently going to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.
This makes me happy, as this is something I’ve advocated for more than 20 years but never expected to actually see happen. (I first argued for ditching Jackson in Prism magazine back in the ’90s — saying he should be replaced with either Tubman or Louis Armstrong.)
Honoring Tubman on official currency is somewhat ironic, of course, since Harriet Tubman was a notorious thief. She stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Legally and constitutionally, that’s what it meant to liberate slaves in antebellum America. It meant stealing property. And Tubman did that, again and again, with audacious courage. She was really good at it — so good that the U.S. military later hired the outlaw to serve as a spy, and she became the first woman and first civilian to plan and lead a U.S. military operation.*
“It’s difficult to separate fact from fiction in Tubman’s life,” Barbara Maranzani writes in an article trying to do just that. Some of the legendary embellishments may be overstated, but most of the hard, documented facts are overwhelming.
It’s fitting that Tubman will be displacing Jackson on the 20. A century before Tubman was leading fugitive slaves north to freedom it had been possible for enslaved persons to escape southward — to Seminole country in Florida. That route to freedom was cut off thanks to the Seminole wars — begun and led by then-Gen. Andrew Jackson. As Prof. Kari Winter says in the Politico piece linked above, Jackson was “a scoundrel, a slave holder and a white supremacist who was involved in the removal of Indians and was completely opposed to paper money and was horrible to women.” Pretty much.
To recap, then:
1. We’re going to stop honoring the lawless, genocidal thug Jackson. That’s a Good Thing.
2. We’re going to be honoring the remarkable, valiant, amazing outlaw Tubman. That’s a Good Thing.
3. We’re at last going to put a woman and a person of color on paper money that people actually use. That’s a Good Thing.
What’s the downside? Well, as we discussed here last year, symbolic gestures of this sort are usually exploited by those who want to avoid anything more substantive. Here’s what I wrote last May:
If … Harriet Tubman does wind up gracing the $20 bill, that symbolic gesture will likely be misrepresented and abused in the same way that the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is routinely misused to try to neutralize and inoculate against everything that King did and said and fought for.
But that would be true of King’s legacy even if we didn’t have that national holiday. Those who want to usurp and undermine that legacy by honoring him as a symbol and ignoring his substance will always find and create ways to do so. We should never mistake the aspiration of the symbolic honor for the achievement of the substantial outcome, but I still think we’re better off having that symbol than not.
This concern reminds me a bit of hearing all the talk in 2008 of how the election of the first black president would lead to or somehow prove that America had entered a “post-racial” utopia. It was already clear, long before election day, that an Obama victory would be exploited and misused to challenge the necessity of fundamental civil rights laws and protections — as, indeed, it was, reprehensibly, in the indefensible Shelby County ruling of the Roberts court. But even so, I don’t think that amounted to a reason not to vote for Obama.
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* Since one of my wouldn’t-it-be-cool pipe dream wishes seems to be coming true, let me take this opportunity to repeat another of them: I want to see a big-budget Hollywood movie about the Raid at Combahee Ferry. And I’d like to see Viola Davis play Tubman (even though, at 5’5″, Davis is half-a-foot too tall).