I’ll readily admit that the face gracing the $20 bill is not our most urgent issue – not with 433,000 people needlessly dead and 45 Republican senators saying that their insurrectionist-in-exile should get a pass.
But we can all agree that symbols are important, define who we are as a people and help us craft our national narrative.
So, in that sense, it surely matters whether the face on the $20 bill depicts a racist genocidal white guy who enslaved human beings or a Black woman who repeatedly risked her life to successfully free human beings. The good news is that the Biden administration intends to right a wrong by putting Harriet Tubman where she belongs.
As press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday, “The Treasury Department is taking steps to resume efforts to put (Tubman) on the front of the new $20 notes. It’s important that our money reflect the history and diversity of our country.”
Well, yeah. White men weren’t the only people who built this nation. Black women have never appeared on American currency. Tubman, a fugitive slave and heroine of the Underground Railroad, rescued hundreds of African-Americans from servitude. She was a Union spy during the Civil War, recruited ex-slaves for a Union regiment, and led an assault that freed 700 more. In her late 70s she delivered speeches for women’s suffrage, but died seven years before women won the right to vote.
Wait, let me back up a bit. Did Jen Psaki say that the Biden administration wants to “resume” the process to put Tubman on the $20 bill? When did that process start – and why did it stop?
Take a wild guess why it stopped.
Back in 2016, President Obama’s Treasury secretary announced a plan to replace facial incumbent Andrew Jackson starting in 2020. But that plan was quickly shelved during the MAGA occupation. As the MAGA candidate had signaled during the 2016 campaign, when asked about replacing Jackson with Tubman, “I don’t like seeing it. I think it’s pure political correctness.”
In his mind, the reality of racial diversity – and the truth of our national narrative – was “political correctness.” And he was reportedly blunter in conversation with White House aides. According to Omarosa Manigault Newman, the ex-aide who last year wrote the book Unhinged, her racist boss told her what he really thought about Tubman: “You want me to put that face on the $20 bill?”
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was thus tasked with telling Congress that the switch to Tubman was unfeasible because of “security” concerns, something to do with unspecified “counterfeiting issues.” And so the woman who once said that “slavery is the next thing to hell” was thereby consigned to the back of the bus.
Besides, the insurrectionist-in-chief loved Andrew Jackson and put the guy’s picture on the Oval Office wall. In his words, “Andrew Jackson had a history of tremendous success for the country.” If living as a member of the landed gentry with slave labor and ethnic-cleansing Native Americans is what constitutes success, then, yes, Jackson was boffo.
As the recent excellent book “Jacksonland” chronicles in great detail, “Jackson’s style of negotiating (with Native Americans) was frank and coercive. In talk after talk over the years, he told native leaders he was their friend, and that he wanted to pay for their land – but that if they failed to sell, white settlers would take their land for nothing.”
Jackson, his family members, and his closest business associates, ultimately stole more than 45,000 acres. Having thus enriched himself prior to becoming president, he worked with his postmaster general to suppress anti-slavery mail from northern abolitionists.
Yes, we’re only talking here about faces on currency. But it’s high time we honored people like Tubman who truly made American great. This was a woman who in her last years preached hope to people of color during the worst of Jim Crow. She once said: “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”
And she was right on the money, where she belongs.
Opinion contributor Dick Polman, a veteran national political columnist based in Philadelphia and a Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, writes at DickPolman.net. His work appears on Mondays on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected].