Harriet on the $20: It's Complicated | Sojourners

Harriet on the $20: It's Complicated

Image via Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service/Flickr

If you dwell in certain corners of the internet, you know that yesterday’s announcement Harriet Tubman would be the face of the new $20 bill wasn’t met with unanimous joy.

Obviously, there were the racist detractors (I won’t link to their responses, but you can Google some of their tweets if you’re intrigued), but there was another — perhaps surprising — unhappy demographic: black feminists. Not all of them, mind you. But a good number of them spent some time yesterday decrying the fact that a formerly enslaved woman would be featured on a unit of U.S. currency — the most tangible symbol of an economic system that was built on enslaved bodies.

Writer Feminista Jones put it this way: “No, I won’t feel comfortable using a $20 bill with the face of a woman who was once considered currency herself. You may disagree.”

I understand the sentiment. I will even admit to rolling my eyes a few times when I heard social justice do-gooders proclaim that with this move by the Treasury, finally, justice was being served in the U.S. To be clear, putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill is not justice. Black people today still face a number disadvantages in this country, most of which can be traced back to slavery. Harriet Tubman being on a $20 bill does not change that.

But I’m still celebrating.

At the end of the day, the Treasury’s decision is a symbolic gesture. It was never meant to mark the end of racism or make amends for slavery. It’s just the Treasury saying, “Hey, since we like our currency to feature people Americans ought to revere, why don’t we include a black woman next time?” It’s a far from perfect gesture, but I can dig it.

Tubman is being honored for her courage and selflessness, and I will always be 100 percent here for positive depictions of black people in the dominant culture. Because we haven’t always had that. I mean, we’re not that far removed from a time when Sambos and Mammies were the only roles black people were allowed to play in Hollywood. And even today, black actors seem to only be recognized for playing weak and troubled characters, when they’re recognized at all.

We live in a country where national history is routinely whitewashed — institutional racism is downplayed and non-white voices are largely erased. Case in point, after the Treasury’s announcement yesterday, the number one most Googled search query was, “Who is Harriet Tubman?” People genuinely did not know who she was. And why would they? For many people in this country, the history that recognizes black heroes is not the history they’ve been taught.

Putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill isn’t going to fix any of this. But I find it hard to not be excited that a strong black woman is being honored for being a strong black woman. Is a $20 bill an imperfect vehicle for this recognition? Yes. But I’m encouraged by the fact that the U.S. at least wants to appear as if celebrating black people is a normal thing to do.