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Honor or Insult?: A Debate on the Significance of Harriet Tubman on the New $20 Bill

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On Wednesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has announced that new $20 bills will feature Harriet Tubman on the front, replacing former president and slave owner Andrew Jackson. The move comes after more than a half a million people voted for Tubman to replace Jackson. But in fact, Jackson will not be removed entirely, simply moved to the back of the bill. Some have criticized the idea that Harriet Tubman should represent U.S. currency at all. In a 2015 essay that went viral again yesterday, writer Feminista Jones wrote: "If having Harriet Tubman’s face on the $20 bill was going to improve women’s access to said bill, I’d be all for it. But instead, it only promises to distort Tubman’s legacy ... [which] is rooted in resisting the foundation of American capitalism." For more, we speak with Steven Thrasher, a weekly columnist for the Guardian US, where he wrote a piece headlined "To put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill would be an insult to her legacy." And we speak also with Winston Grady-Willis, professor and chair of Africana Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are on a 100-city tour marking Democracy Now!'s 20th anniversary. Tonight we head to Colorado College. Right now we're broadcasting from Denver, Colorado.

U.S. [Treasury Secretary] Jack Lew has announced the new $20 bills will feature iconic abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the front, replacing former president and slave owner Andrew Jackson.

TREASURY SECRETARY JACK LEW: Harriet Tubman is one of the great American stories. A woman born a slave, illiterate for her whole life, she brought many, many people out of slavery through the underground railroad by time and again risking her own life to save others. She did intelligence for our Army during the Civil War, after she worked to get the women’s suffrage movement going. It’s a great American story.

AMY GOODMAN: That was U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. The move comes after more than a half a million people voted for Harriet Tubman to replace Jackson. But, in fact, President Jackson will not be removed entirely, simply moved to the back of the bill. Some have criticized the idea that Harriet Tubman should represent U.S. currency at all. In a 2015 essay that went viral again yesterday, the writer Feminista Jones wrote, quote, "If having Harriet Tubman’s face on the $20 bill was going to improve women’s access to said bill, I’d be all for it. But instead, it only promises to distort Tubman’s legacy ... rooted in resisting the foundation of American capitalism."

Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. In New York, Steven Thrasher is with us. He’s a weekly columnist for the Guardian US, where he wrote a piece headlined, "To put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill would be an insult to her legacy." Here in Denver, we’re joined by Winston Grady-Willis. He is professor and chair of Africana Studies at Metropolitan State University here in Denver.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! We’re going to start with the professor here in Denver, Colorado. Professor, talk about who Harriet Tubman was. Give us a thumbnail sketch of this remarkable woman’s life.

WINSTON GRADY-WILLIS: Thank you, Amy. She was a remarkable woman indeed. She was born into slavery in Maryland. She was initially slated to work in the big house, but was seen as being too recalcitrant, and so was placed in the field, which is the experience for the large number of enslaved African women and men. She would—

AMY GOODMAN: She was born in 1822 in the Eastern Shore of Maryland?

WINSTON GRADY-WILLIS: That’s correct. And in Maryland, she would eventually escape from slavery, but realized that her own individual freedom from chattel slavery simply was not enough. And so she dedicated the rest of her life to this ongoing mission to free family members, friends, individuals who did not know her directly. She became the most prominent conductor with the underground railroad.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s interesting she escaped slavery like 10 years after Frederick Douglass from this same area.

WINSTON GRADY-WILLIS: Yes, that’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: He, also enslaved.

WINSTON GRADY-WILLIS: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: He goes north, becomes a world-renowned speaker against slavery.

WINSTON GRADY-WILLIS: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: But she comes back to the place where she had been brutalized. Right?

WINSTON GRADY-WILLIS: That’s right. That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: They said she experienced these epileptic-like seizures—

WINSTON GRADY-WILLIS: That is correct.

AMY GOODMAN: —because she had been beaten so badly around her head.

WINSTON GRADY-WILLIS: That is right. That’s right. And she would live with this lifelong disability, yet help empower individuals to escape from slavery. And the key thing, the relationship between Douglass and Tubman, Douglass along with Sojourner Truth are quintessential examples of political abolitionists, and Tubman is what I would call a military abolitionist. Many folks would refer to her as Moses. But a number of enslaved Africans, others in the underground railroad, often referred to her as the general.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about—she not only was a conductor, as they say, on the underground railroad, coming back, freeing hundreds—

WINSTON GRADY-WILLIS: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —of slaves, but she fought in the Civil War.

WINSTON GRADY-WILLIS: She did indeed. She was a spy. She was a scout. And most famously perhaps, she was the individual who led the raid down the Combahee River in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. It was a nighttime raid in which she led forces that—U.S. Army forces, often referred to as Union forces, who freed dozens of enslaved Africans, eventually hundreds, under Confederate fire. Not a single individual was lost.

AMY GOODMAN: Afterwards, after her position fighting in the Civil War, it took her decades to get a pension.

WINSTON GRADY-WILLIS: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Is that right?

WINSTON GRADY-WILLIS: Absolutely, absolutely. It was a decades-long struggle. And then when she finally did receive that pension, it was an absolute pittance. There’s no question about it.

AMY GOODMAN: And slave owners put a bounty on her head?

WINSTON GRADY-WILLIS: Yes, absolutely. I often think of—when we think of the bounty that Assata Shakur has on her head, I’m reminded that there’s a long tradition of individuals, going back to Tubman herself, who were deemed such a threat to the status quo.

AMY GOODMAN: Steven Thrasher, you wrote about Harriet Tubman replacing the slave-owning President Andrew Jackson on the front of the bill. He’ll be pushed to the back of the bill. Your thoughts on this iconic abolitionist, her face on the most used bill in the United States?

STEVEN THRASHER: I have very mixed feelings about it. And I don’t disagree with anything the professor said about what a fantastic and wonderful American she was, and I do understand people who think that this is an opportunity to have her have more visibility. But I’m really concerned about it, because Harriet Tubman was, you know, a slave herself. She could have been bought or sold with a $20 bill. And her work was about undoing the system of oppression of African Americans. And so I really worry that in being placed on the bill, that will be sort of a way of papering over her true legacy and sort of be a way to just say that things are being taken care of and are no longer problematic.

I would be entirely for the Harriet Tubman Reparations Act of 2016. You know, if—I know this Congress would never pass such a thing, and President Obama probably wouldn’t sign it. But I’d be all for having something happen where Harriet Tubman was used to address the economic inequality of African Americans still to this day. But I’m really worried about seeing her face on this bill, starting to see her face on mattress sales or, you know, electronic store sales or things like that, and just seeing the American dollar consume one of our heroes, who is really about undoing the ways that American capitalism used our bodies to capitalize this country.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read you a quote from NPR pointing out that putting Tubman on the $20 bill would be poetic because of "a special historical resonance: That’s the same amount she eventually received from the U.S. government as her monthly pension for her service as a nurse, scout, cook and spy during the Civil War, as well as for her status as the widow of a veteran." Steven Thrasher, your response?

STEVEN THRASHER: I would be more persuaded that that was useful now if we were at a place where African Americans and African-American women were earning, you know, equal pay and had equal wealth. But the fact of the matter is that right now white families have about 12 times the wealth of black families in this country. Black women earn something like 64 cents on the dollar to white men. And so, we’re still living in a time that over the course of decades and centuries has been created an economic inequality, from the time that Harriet Tubman was doing her work, and these things haven’t been addressed. You know, we have, of course, racial disparities that happen across millions of people. But there are specific companies, like, as I wrote in my piece, Aetna insurance, that—they insured slaves, they made their money off of slaves, they made their wealth off of slaves, that very much fueled the economy of this nation for hundreds of years, and that led to these disparities that we still have. And those specific things are not being addressed. So to then take Harriet Tubman, one of our best images and one of our best people, who was fighting that, and then to now put her on the dollar that is still economically oppressing black people, I think, really misses a very important point.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Winston Grady-Willis, this whole issue of her representing capitalism?

WINSTON GRADY-WILLIS: Yes. I think that Steven Thrasher makes a really important point. His piece is excellent. And he and a number of other individuals—political prisoner, freedom fighter Jalil Muntaqim—make very, very important points here. And so, in many ways, I’m actually in agreement. But at the end of the day—perhaps it’s the practical bones in my body—I think that having Tubman as the face on the $20 bill actually provides an opportunity for a number of us to go beyond an elementary school narrative and discussion of her life and legacy. She is an extraordinary figure. And given the place of enslaved African men and women, and specifically the marginalization of enslaved African women, the absolute absence of ownership over their bodies, Tubman’s activism, her agency, stands in stark contrast to that. And I think it’s very, very important for folks to not only understand that, but to also—in a society in which heroism, when connected, when gendered, when seen in connection to womanhood, is often always placed in exclusively white terms, to have Tubman given prominence in this way is profoundly important. It’s something that should not—should not be—

AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to put this quote to you, Professor Winston Grady-Willis. 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."

WINSTON GRADY-WILLIS: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And for our viewers and listeners around the world, outside of Colorado, you can explain what a 4/20 binge is before you respond.

WINSTON GRADY-WILLIS: Absolutely. I think I may have had some students in class who may have been recuperating from that celebration of marijuana use, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s right, 4/20, folks, which we just passed. We were a little careful driving on the roads, but April 20th is the celebration of marijuana. And because it’s legal here in Colorado, enormous day.

WINSTON GRADY-WILLIS: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: But what about that—Jackson on the back, Tubman on the front?

WINSTON GRADY-WILLIS: Yeah. Andrew Jackson is arguably a war criminal. He is someone who was unapologetically a slaveholder and an individual who played a very critical role with respect to the genocide of indigenous populations. And so, the positionality, the juxtaposition of this woman who escapes slavery, who would go on to command the respect of U.S. Army generals, to sort of supplant Jackson, that’s not lost on any of us. It’s not lost on any of us.

AMY GOODMAN: Jackson was one of 18 presidents who owned slaves.

WINSTON GRADY-WILLIS: That’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, he was not only a slave owner, but participated in the genocide against the indigenous population—

WINSTON GRADY-WILLIS: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —the Cherokee people calling him "Sharp Knife," indicating—

WINSTON GRADY-WILLIS: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: —his extreme violence against them.

WINSTON GRADY-WILLIS: That’s right. Absolutely, absolutely. And so, again, with all of the contradictions, the ironies that are in play here, what cannot be lost is that those of us who do the work, whether grassroots activists, whether educators, we have a responsibility to take this moment and to celebrate Tubman on our own terms. We’ve seen already that the mainstream corporate media, that individuals in high places often will have a particular narrative, whether it’s on Dr. King and his holiday, which is really a social justice movement holiday. But it’s incumbent upon us, it’s our obligation, to take this moment, in terms of the $20 bill, to reaffirm Tubman’s place, what she represents in terms of black womanhood, black agency, and the bedrock and central importance that blacks themselves played during the U.S. Civil War.

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