-Eric Scott Pickard
Apparently, in a decade and a half Harriet Tubman is going to be on the twenty dollar bill.
Harriet Tubman was great. Not only did she liberate herself from slavery, she helped other people liberate themselves from slavery, and she also fought for her pay as a Union operative in the American Civil War. This makes her an icon not only for women’s rights and for black rights, but for worker’s rights as well. She was utterly fantastic. She deserves to have her face plastered everywhere, including any kind of paper currency. Excuse me, though, if I don’t get all teary eyed over this “achievement” just yet.
Firstly, let’s talk about the legitimacy of money. The only reason there are images on currency is to add the legitimacy of the State to them. Our money is covered with various symbols tying it to the history of the nation – the buildings of US government, for example, the American Eagle, the various Masonic symbols that were held dear by the early Founders of the United States. Conspiracy theories aside, those symbols were added intentionally to add legitimacy to the currency – as symbols have been added to money since money was first minted. On Roman coins you can see the image of the Emperor, for Caesar was the source of all wealth – so it is now; Government, or the Republic, is the source of all wealth. This is the message that is supposed to be inferred from the various symbols on our money.
Now, I’m a poor person. I know the value of money; utterly valueless, except that I have to use it to find food to eat. The only important part of a paper bill is the phrase “legal tender for all debts, public and private.” Write that down and a numerical value, and I’ll accept and spend it, regardless of what pretty pictures you paint across it. The fact that they stick pyramids and Presidents on the damn thing is utterly irrelevant to me . If you study history, they have always stuck the powerful, the wealthy, and the leaders on their currency – and make no mistake, it’s always theirs, not ours. But I have no problem with putting Harriet Tubman on the twenty dollar bill, really. It will be lovely to see her face when I am paying way too much for gas and food and rent. I can respect her as I am shelling out money for basic necessities. But it doesn’t mean anything.
What would mean something would be women earning that full dollar amount an hour for the same work as men. What would mean something would be black Americans being employed at the same rates as Whites, or incarcerated at levels similar to whites instead of far above those levels. What would mean something is a currency that wasn’t mostly issued as a voucher system for poor folks while the rich hold all the meaningful land and resources. What would mean something is an actual, concrete recognition that women and people of color aren’t just “a minority” but actual human beings, that their lives and issues matter, and that we should make an effort to bring their deep value into our society, rather than treat them as a fringe group that needs to be pandered to. But, fine; put Harriet Tubman on the bill.
Put her on the bill with Andrew Jackson, who will be on the reverse side of the bill still. Make her share the bill with him, instead of eliminating him from the bill entirely. Of course, putting a black woman on a mainstream piece of American currency, you have to make sure she shares it with some white man. Nevermind that neither one of them even agreed with paper currency – Jackson was highly against paper currency in general, and Tubman was against our capitalist economic system in general – but never mind that. That irony is tangential, as we are “honoring” them, after all. Making them share the bill is the real injustice, really. Andrew Jackson was a slave owner a thousand times over, and used his position of power to support slavery and stymie abolitionists; his loathing of abolitionism was no secret. On these grounds alone, he shouldn’t be sharing a bill with Tubman; they would have loathed each other. Further, Jackson was a deep lover of genocide and white supremacy, and was responsible for thousands upon thousands of deaths among North American Indigenous peoples. The man never signed a treaty he didn’t break, at least among non-white human beings. To put him on the same bill with Harriet Tubman is the darkest of ironies – one that should not be ignored, but we will, as we are all forced to use this money. We will have this bill, covered with a great human hero and a vicious racist (take your pick, who is who) and in the end, the song remains the same; it will spend the same and probably be worth less by the time they are issued, and the faces on the bills matter very little compared to the actual value of the note.
So, for God’s sake, put Harriet Tubman on the bill. I’d rather they made pay equal between men and women, I would rather they made equal the incomes between working people and the owner class, I would rather they address the deep racial divide in this nation. I’d rather they not put her on the bill with a racist, genocidal white supremacist. But put her on the damn bill, that’s fantastic. But after we get over this story and move on to important things, I hope we can get down to those, more important issues.
Because in the end, the face on the useless, fake money you give me is utterly unimportant. In the end, none of us can eat a piece of paper, and your appeasement measures only delay the time that we take back all the things that are ours.
-Eric Scott Pickard is a poet, activist, and artist. He is a journalist with The Fifth Column News and a co-founder of Free Radical Media, and a host of the Free Radical Media podcast.