harriet tubman

Harriet on the $20: It's Complicated

Image via Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service/Flickr

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.

A Way Out of No Way

AFRICAN-AMERICAN women’s wisdom emerges from an experience of triple (or more) oppression. Denied the dignity of womanhood, condemned for their skin color, whether too dark or too light, and often imprisoned by mis-education, demeaning and meaningless work, and a denial of their very humanity, African-American women have yet managed to forge a spirituality of hope and survival that has sustained them for centuries.

As Alice Walker noted, they dreamed dreams and had visions; they imagined a time and place when the pain and indignity of their lives would be transcended, not in some far-off heaven but right here in the future of their children and their children’s children. Somehow our foremothers persisted in their faith. They made rosaries out of beads and knotted string and learned scripture by rote memory. They resisted as best they could anything and anyone who attempted to keep them from living their faith on a daily basis.

Once freedom, so-called, came, they struggled, despite the callous disregard of their fellow Christians, to remain faithful. When their children were forbidden entry into diocesan or public schools, when they were required to sit in upper galleries and back pews, when they had to wait until last to partake of the sacraments, they did not suffer these indignities quietly but often walked out and with their meager resources built their own schools and church buildings.

African-American women wove a tapestry of love, faith, and hope that they wrapped around any and all who came into their lives, much as Harriet Tubman, the general of the Underground Railroad, did. Harriet “created” family wherever she was, as many other slaves did. They re-created communities to replace those from which they were torn through the Middle Passage; the sale of their husbands, parents, and/or children; and the willful destruction of their culture and traditions by those threatened by and fearful of it.

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Immigrant Discrimination Through a Child's Eyes

Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com
Photo: White House march for immigration reform in 2009. Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com

My second grader helped me understand that the story of Harriet Tubman is still being lived out today in the lives of Latino families in my school and across the country.

Mary Bauer and Sarah Reynolds authored the report “Under Siege: Life for Low-Income Latinos in the South for the Southern Poverty Law Center.”

They explain, "Latinos in the South—many of whom came here to escape crushing poverty in their home countries—are encountering wide-spread hostility, discrimination and exploitation."

This report helps us understand the struggle for life that many of our Latino students take on, a clandestine struggle like the one Harriet Tubman made all those years ago.

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