I watched in horror yesterday as the Internet began to be peppered with pushback on the idea of putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, an idea very nobly put forth through the recent Women on 20s campaign.
Although thousands voted in an online poll to petition the Treasury Department to replace President Andrew Jackson with Tubman, many black intellectuals and writers have criticized the effort, mainly saying that she shouldn’t be featured on currency that is symbolic of a system she couldn’t participate in, was used to buy and sell people like her, and thus was one she would not support. While I certainly respect the right of everyone to express his or her opinion, I found the notion that she shouldn’t be honored rather ridiculous.
Of course there should be a black woman on the $20 bill, and featuring a former slave-turned-freedom fighter is even greater poetic justice.
1. The idea that Harriet Tubman was not a fan of capitalism is woefully unfounded.
Most blacks could not participate in the capitalist system at all, but when they have been able to, many have embraced and succeeded in it. There is no reason to believe that someone as resourceful and dogged as Tubman would not have succeeded as an entrepreneur and a businesswoman, and to suggest otherwise is downright elitist and dismissive. The future success of black businesswomen from Madam C.J. Walker to Oprah Winfrey and Mellody Hobson is a direct result of women like Tubman. Why not pay homage to her sacrifice so that black women in the future could be prosperous?
2. Money is not simply a symbol of capitalism.
Money is exchanged under communism, socialism and every other economic model. There was money long before modern capitalism was conceived. (Remember the money changers from the Bible?) In fact, since the American system was built on the backs of slaves, shouldn’t they be recognized on at least one of the bills? Putting the picture of a former slave on the front of the bill is akin to acknowledging that the enslaved should have been paid for the work they did in the first place.
3. Take the win.
The contributions of black people to the fabric of America is so seldom noted that it is absurd to actually fight against honoring our great foremother in such a highly visible way. It would force everyone who used that bill to stop and reflect on her triumph against a system that would repress her, a triumph that is symbolized by her prominence on a bill that was used to purchase her. At the same time, it would rid us of lionizing a man who presided over the slaughter and robbery of tens of thousands of Native Americans.
Just as important, people around the world recognize the power and importance of American currency—even more so than the American flag and the national anthem. The notable exclusion of blacks on the bills that make up that currency is a criminal discounting of our contributions to this country.
Unless we are prepared to wait a century until President Barack Obama makes it onto the $500,000 bill (by which point actual currency will be obsolete anyway), I think we should take the win.
Cedric Mobley is a Washington, D.C.-based communications and education strategist.