Harriet Tubman and the Currency of Resistance

April 21, 2016

By Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced Wednesday that the revised $20 bill will feature the portrait of the legendary abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Tubman was born a slave, escaped to freedom and became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, as well as a campaigner for women’s right to vote. She will be replacing President Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill. He was a contemporary of hers, who owned slaves (one of 18 presidents who did so) and became wealthy from their forced labor. The decision was influenced by grass-roots action, Lew said, as hundreds of thousands weighed in with their suggestions for which women to honor. It also was not without controversy.

Tubman was the middle of nine children, born Araminta “Minty” Ross in 1822 on a plantation in Maryland, not far from where Frederick Douglass was enslaved. She married John Tubman in 1844, and changed her name to Harriet to honor her mother. In 1849, she escaped north (about 10 years after Douglass managed to do so), but wasted no time returning clandestinely to the place of her enslavement to help rescue her family. She became renowned for her daring, late-night escapes, leading slave families to freedom. The slaves called her, simply, “Moses.” The slave owners put a bounty on her head. She went on to serve as a nurse during the Civil War, then as a spy. She is considered the first woman to lead an armed expedition in combat, guiding Union forces in South Carolina on a raid that freed over 700 slaves. She did all this without a formal education, never having learned to read or write.

Despite these remarkable achievements, the nation she fought for did not treat her well after the war. She struggled financially later in life, taking on boarders and earning money however she could. Even though she was a combat veteran, it took her decades to win a modest pension from the federal government for her wartime service. She died in her early 90s in the town that she had adopted as her home, Auburn, New York, where she lies buried.

Lew also wrote in his announcement that Andrew Jackson would remain on the bill, just placed on its back side. Jackson should be removed entirely. He was not only a slave owner, but also participated in the genocide against the indigenous population. The Cherokee people called him Sharp Knife, indicating his extreme violence against them.

Akiba Solomon, writing in the racial-justice publication Colorlines, commented: “Several people have suggested that Tubman on the front, Jackson on the back is a late April Fool’s joke or the product of a 4/20 binge. It is neither. It’s America.” Others have critiqued the decision to use Tubman’s image at all, writing that Tubman fought her whole life against U.S. capitalism, and that consigning her to the country’s most popular bill is an insult to her legacy.

But how do we popularize the work of revolutionaries? What better tribute to her lifetime of struggle could there be than to place her image into the hands of hundreds of millions of people? Imagine if the minimum-wage movement, currently dubbed the “fight for fifteen,” were to be transformed by the defiant visage on that $20 bill. Many felt just years ago that a demand for a $15-an-hour minimum wage was unfathomable; now it has become the norm, with city after city and increasingly state after state moving toward that wage. Let Harriet Tubman on the $20 become the image for the next stage of the movement, the Harriet Tubman movement for the $20-per-hour minimum wage. Let the Harriet Tubman $20 bill become the hallmark of a renewed demand for reparations to African-Americans for the lasting devastations of slavery.

The story of Harriet Tubman, of her courageous resistance to injustice, of her fight to free slaves, for equality for women—all this must be the common currency of our democracy.

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