Sorry Mr. Jackson, Tubman’s for real
On April 20th, 2016, after some public debate, Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew announced that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the 20 dollar bill. Harriet Tubman, a Civil Rights hero, abolitionist, and spy for The Union, would grace the bill in the near future, replacing “Old Hickory,” the 7th President of the United States.
Andrew Jackson, as critics have pointed out, was responsible for the removal of Native Americans, and in particular, the “Trail of Tears,” where “the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muskogee, Creek, Seminole and Cherokee people were forcibly removed from their traditional lands in the Southeastern United States, and relocated farther west.” In defense of Jackson, proponents of the former President have stated his racial attitudes were the mainstream for his time, and that applying 21st century morality to 19th century figures was an unfair judgement on the character and contributions of a “war hero” to his country.
Let’s assume for a moment these judgments are indeed “unfair.” That we should not judge Jackson by his 19th century attitude. This lack of judgement alone does not solidly defend Jackson’s perpetual presence on the 20 dollar bill. Harriet Tubman should be placed on the 20 dollar bill, and Andrew Jackson removed, for three major reasons: the tradition of bill change, the diversification of representation, and most importantly, the merits of Tubman herself.
The 20 dollar bill, and indeed, all US currency, has undergone major changes throughout the history of the United States. Andrew Jackson has only graced the bill since the year 1928, less than 100 years ago. In fact, Andrew Jackson’s presence on the 20 is surprisingly more recent than the television, with people alive today who used bills without him present. Those people seemed to manage just fine. The first figure on the 20 dollar bill? Lady Liberty. It is a normal, and even traditional, change to make throughout the history of America.
Those who argue it would somehow “harm” Jackson’s legacy to be removed from the 20 dollar bill will be comforted by the notion that many cities, counties, and schools are named after him. In fact, Jackson, Michigan is less than an hour away from my city, Ann Arbor. Andrew Jackson, by nature of being the 7th President of the United States, is also in every US history book, as well as on every presidential poster. Andrew Jackson will not be forgotten with his removal, just as history has not forgotten Grover Cleveland. Then again, if you cannot name any Grover Cleveland facts, I modestly propose that his monetary presence was perhaps undeserved, or demonstrates most Americans do not care about presidents who do not have the last name Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy, or any they have lived to see for themselves.
Aside from history, the matter of representation should be addressed. A black American has never been the face of a piece of American currency. African Americans are 13 percent of the US population, and women are 50 percent of the US population. Therefore, it would seem that placing women on half of our currency, and African Americans on roughly 1 in 8 pieces of legal tender, would be simply a reflection of America’s population.
History is a rich pool with many examples with which to draw from. Everyone, from every background, has contributed to this country, has died for this country, and has worked for the ideals of this country. The Tuskegee Airmen who fought in World War II, Sojourner Truth’s contribution to feminism before the coining of the term, Civil War hero David G. Farragut’s battle for the Union, Frederick Douglass’ fight against slavery, Daniel Inouye’s service as President pro tempore until his death, as well as countless others, demonstrate that everyone is capable of greatness, from any background, and that the country can honor these people, not purely because of their heritage, but because they served America and had a great hand in contributing to the country.
As their qualifications are beyond reproach, it is important to remember that representation does matter. In Brown v. Board of Education, when asked which dolls were beautiful, or good, black children picked white dolls. No one outside of their families spoke of their beauty, and society was surely telling them white people were more beautiful, so much so that they did not believe that their own skin could posses as much beauty. Women are pushed out of science and math courses, where they are made to feel unwelcome. A young Hillary Clinton, for instance, was told she could not be an Astronaut. When figures in authority tell you something negative about yourself, doesn’t an alternative symbol of accomplishment provide a hope for a dream forcibly deferred? Wouldn’t a black woman within a prominent place in our society say something positive to black girls? The answer is yes, that it would be a symbol, when many other people are saying no, that their accomplishments do matter, and will be recognized. That they can be a leader, that they can be a face of history, that they can be something.
Finally, I would be remiss not to discuss the woman herself, Harriet Tubman. As mentioned before, Tubman was an abolitionist, spy, and Civil Rights hero. More broadly, Harriet Tubman is a symbol of perseverance under any circumstance. She was born into slavery, escaped out of it, and chose to risk everything to aid others in their attempts for freedom. Harriet Tubman was willing to risk her life for something that she believed in, and something that is inscribed on the vast majority of American institutions: equality.
The idea that a human being can own another human being is one of the most horrifying truths of human history. That for a majority of America’s history, this practice, and subsequent, direct damage from it, has taken, and continues to take place in this country, demonstrates that America has a long arc of history to follow to finally reach equality and justice. Harriet Tubman fought for that idea, she pushed the country along the arc of history to make it a better place, one person at a time, one dangerous night mission into the south at a time. Would the average person do that? No, only the extraordinary person would.
Frederick Douglass once said of Tubman,
“I need such words from you far more than you can need them from me, especially where your superior labors and devotion to the cause of the lately enslaved of our land are known as I know them. The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day — you in the night. I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes of being approved by the multitude, while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred, and foot-sore bondmen and women, whom you have led out of the house of bondage, and whose heartfelt, “God bless you,” has been your only reward.”
Harriet Tubman endured the difficult of being black, a woman, and disabled (a result of an iron weight to her skull at the age of 12), to fight for this country, and for her fellow human. To put it plainly, Tubman deserves the 20, many libraries, schools, and counties. Harriet Tubman deserves recognition, because while we do not have to judge the past by the contemporary, we can honor and recognize with our current values in mind. History is an ever changing, evolving, and fluid aspect of human existence, and without people like Tubman, that river of change would move a little slower, a little less wide, and a little more resistant to change. Tubman should be on the 20 for every black girl who dreams of being able to simply dream, and for every black girl who couldn’t because they were told to sit in the back of the bus, or go to the worse school, or no school at all. Tubman should be on the 20 because African Americans helped to build, and continue to build, America, and have done so with little to no recognition. The cost of that perpetual patience cannot be paid with a 20, but maybe it can be the start of the repayment and recognition of those often forgotten by history.