Dishonoring Harriet Tubman


The above reward will be given any person that will take him and deliver him to me or secure him in jail so that I can get him. If taken out of the state, the above reward, and all reasonable expenses paid – and ten dollars extra for every hundred lashes any person will give him to the amount of three hundred.

Andrew Jackson, Tennessee Gazette, November 7, 1804

The history of American presidents is one long tale of criminality and Andrew Jackson was one of the worst of the lot. Jackson grew rich on his Tennessee plantation made profitable by the unpaid labor of 200 enslaved people. There are southern cities with names like Jacksonville, Florida and Jackson, Mississippi in honor of a man who practiced the genocide that made white conquest possible.

Jackson was perhaps more responsible than any other person for driving indigenous people out of the southern states. The Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears were his handiwork. After Indians were conquered in war and sent to far off Oklahoma white settlers swept in to make cotton king through the labor of chattel slaves.Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 4.59.31 PM

While Jackson was making hell on earth for indigenous peoples and black Americans, Araminta Ross was struggling to survive in Maryland. Born circa 1820 she was among the 4 million enslaved people in the country. She was as determined to be free as Jackson was to keep people like her in bondage. After marriage to a free man named John Tubman and her flight to freedom she chose her mother’s name, Harriet.

At the young age of 13 she attempted to help an enslaved man escape an overseer’s beating. The overseer threw an iron weight which struck her in the head. Tubman suffered from debilitating headaches and seizures and would fall asleep without warning for the rest of her life. Despite her physical suffering she never lost her determination to be free. She fled the eastern shore of Maryland in 1849 and made her way to Pennsylvania and temporary freedom. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made that freedom precarious but the risks did not sway her. She returned to Maryland on numerous occasions and assisted 150 people in gaining their freedom.

If it is true that one can “turn in the grave,” then Harriet Tubman is surely doing that now. Not only has her name been ruined by a dubious connection with the dollar that kept her captive, but she will share this “honor” with Andrew Jackson, enslaver and Indian killer.

With great fanfare the Treasury Department announced that new faces will appear on the $5, $10 and $20 notes. Currently George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant and Benjamin Franklin appear on the almighty dollar in the most commonly used denominations. With the exception of Abraham Lincoln it is a list of slave holders. Some, like Washington and Jackson, owned hundreds of people, Franklin and Grant a few, but they were all participants in one of the worst evils of human history. Alexander Hamilton gets false credit from popular culture as an abolitionist although he held slaves too. At first the public were told that Tubman would replace Jackson as the new face of the $20 bill. Instead she and Jackson will appear together and make an even greater mockery of her legacy.

There is no honor for Tubman in association with Jackson. Unlike all others whose faces appear on our currency she fits the truest definition of a hero. In fact she fought against what the rest of them represent, the establishment of a settler nation that brought death and misery to millions of people.

Not only did Tubman free herself and others from slavery but she was truly a soldier. On June 2, 1863 she led the union army in an assault on the Combahee river in South Carolina. The battle resulted in victory and in freedom for 700 people. She is the only woman known to have led a civil war military action.

Tubman was on her way to Harpers Ferry in 1859 to fight by John Brown’s side. She arrived too late but it is a great historical what if. Would she have been captured and executed like Brown or would her presence have helped Brown win the day in his quest to spark a slave insurrection?

There is a larger question about how black freedom fighters should be honored and by whom. Black people should need no stamp of approval on their heroic figures. It is enough that we remember Harriet Tubman and tell her story and ours. It is an insult, an offense, to be told that putting her image on the symbol of her oppression is in any way praise worthy.

Neither should anyone care if Donald Trump and his ilk scream the words “political correctness.” His opinions don’t count either and reacting to the shrieks of white nationalists often leads black people to act against their own interests. It is best not to link discussion of Harriet Tubman with Donald Trump for any reason.

The emptiness of the unwanted gesture was exemplified by the New York Times. In reporting the story they mistakenly showed a photo of Sojourner Truth instead of Harriet Tubman. The mix up is a reminder of how little black people count in this society. One enslaved black woman may as well be another even when one is being remembered for supposedly good reasons.

Neither the New York Times nor the Treasury Department will tell the truth of black history in this country. It isn’t their place to tell it and in any case the result will always be a sham. Our story is a deeply sacred responsibility and must never be granted to anyone else.

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Margaret Kimberley writes the Freedom Rider column for Black Agenda Report, where this essay originally appeared. 

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