Money  /  Argument

Putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 Bill Is Not a Sign of Progress

It's a sign of disrespect.

I know in a country that worships at the altar of capitalism–an economic system made possible by the free Black labor procured through the Transatlantic slave trade–a Black woman’s face on our currency seems like the highest honor we could bestow. But what a stunning failure of imagination. Putting Tubman on legal tender, when slaves in the U.S. were treated as fungible commodities is a supreme form of disrespect. The imagery of her face changing hands as people exchange cash for goods and services evokes for me discomfiting scenes of enslaved persons being handed over as payment for white debt or for anything white slaveholders wanted. America certainly owes a debt to Black people, but this is not the way to repay it.

On the heels of Kamala Harris’ historic ascension to the Vice-Presidency, questions about the politics of representation figure heavily in our political discussions and calculations. I believe that representation matters, that it matters for a woman (with liberal values) to be president someday, that Black people and people of color should be in positions of leadership and decision-making in our government. But all forms of representation are not equal, and the desire to put a Black woman’s face on our currency represents a narrative of diversity and inclusion that is deeply ahistorical. It is the ignominious relationship of Black bodies to capital and currency that is the cause today of our most violent battles in this country.

Consider that just weeks ago, an angry insurrectionist white mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, carrying, among other items, the Confederate flag. American lore suggests that the Confederate flag had never previously entered the U.S. Capitol, even during the Civil War. I say lore because we all know that even if the symbol of the Confederacy had never been in the Capitol, Confederate ideas have found a hearty welcome there both in the past and in the present. Since this history has violently reinserted itself, demanding our attention, and if we are wise, our reckoning with a racist past that is never quite past, then we should note, that Black people’s faces have, in fact, been on our national currency before. During the Confederacy, as each secessionist state printed its own money, images of enslaved people picking cotton and doing other forms of menial labor appeared on the currency in several states.

The default position in America is that Black bodies are only useful insofar as they turn a profit. We fought a bloody war over this issue. And then the country turned around and built a prison system based on exactly the same premise, hence calls to abolish prisons, which depend in most cases on a massive amount of free Black labor to turn a profit.