EDITORIAL: Value of Tubman’s face goes beyond $20
Abolitionist’s image on money cracks systematic discrimination
Symbols permeate our consciousness in subtle ways. They are reflective of a society’s values and culture, and symbols implicitly provide a mental map of reality that builds a frame of how we see the world. Putting Harriet Tubman on the face of the $20 bill is undoubtedly a meaningful change — we will have more variety, rather than the same white men on currency. Yes, these men were our Founding Fathers, but they aren’t the only ones who changed the landscape of American culture and history.
But admittedly, people don’t pay attention to the money they carry around. Despite years of quotidian transactions, most people can’t name who’s who on every bill and coin, and that’s perfectly fine. What people do subconsciously take away and acknowledge is that prominent women have never been on the face of a commonly used currency. Besides Lady Liberty (who wasn’t even a living historical figure) and Sacagawea, who are faces on the rarely used dollar coins, women weren’t publicly commemorated on regularly used American bills.
While feminists and many others celebrated, not everyone was happy with the having Tubman on the bill. Public figures like Donald Trump and Ben Carson gave their two cents, and said this was this was an attempt at being politically correct, and that she should instead be on the less circulated $2 bill. They mourned the loss of Andrew Jackson’s position, but Tubman the abolitionist is fitted to replace Jackson the slaveholder. Jackson may have done some things well during his time in office, but the abhorrent and egregious actions overshadow anything else. Despite being a major slaveowner, like so many of our early presidents, Jackson’s record ultimately doesn’t qualify him to be admired.
Jackson initiated the forced migration of thousands of Native Americans from the Southeast to the West, and this notorious exodus is known as the Trail of Tears. Although Jackson knew that Native Americans would die, he let it go on anyway, and this instance is nothing short of genocide.
No one is perfect, and that includes great historical figures. Some people are glorified for one specific act, and other facets of their character remain ignored, overlooked or unknown. Through symbolic gestures, we still continue to honor presidents who were slaveowners or presidents like Woodrow Wilson who were major racists, Ghandi who had strange sexual experiments and would lay in bed naked with his grandniece and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who had countless extramarital affairs.
Yet in the case that there’s a an option between someone who enslaved black people and killed off Native Americans, and someone who freed enslaved black people and served in the Civil War as the first woman to lead U.S. troops in an armed assault, the scale tips heavily and breaks from the weight toward the latter: Harriet Tubman.
Having a woman and, especially a woman of color, on the $20 bill forges a step in the right direction — but it’s far from enough. This monumental commemoration is only a minor detail in the overall scheme of things. Although girls and young people of color are more exposed to those who look like them and it may serve as a tool that gives children powerful role models to aspire to, it’s jarring to have a woman of color on our money because it’s a mere paradox.
When women still make $0.79 to a man’s dollar and when black people are likely to be poorer than white people, then having a black woman on money taunts these disproportionately poorer groups. While a black woman will be on the face of $20 bills, black women generally can’t get a hold of $20 bills when they’re subjected to institutional and systematic discrimination.
Women and people of color need positive symbols and representation, but they can’t feed their families with only that.
The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 148th editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.