Clarence Lusane on the Legacy of Harriet Tubman

In 2016, Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew declared that Harriett Tubman’s would be the new face of the $20 bill and that Andrew Jackson’s would be moved to the back. Scholars and activists, then and now, noted the irony- that two figures of such radically different dispositions and politics would share a place on a currency note. Such are the juxtapositions that would no doubt make Orwell turn in his grave.

Nations typically put heroes on currency. Of course, who is a hero and who is a victim has always been grounds for acrimony and debate. In the United States, what Du Bois called “The Color Line” has defined the anointing-process.

Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States, was known for a particularly virile form of racism, even by the base standards of the time. He played a massive role in the extirpation of Native Americans and was a proud slave-owner. He is now a meme-man for White Supremacists, including one who occupied the aptly named White House between 2017 and 2021.

Contrast Jackson with Harriett Tubman, an outspoken freedom fighter and a votary of economic equality. A self-emancipated Slave, she is credited not only with saving hundreds of other slaves but for fighting tirelessly for human rights- in what modern activists would deem an “intersectional mode; she was not only a rebel and an abolitionist but also a feminist and an articulate voice for women’s rights.

It would appear, then, that the introduction of Tubman’s face on the $20 bill would be uncontroversial and roundly applauded. But then, nothing is quite so easy.

Dr. Clarence Lusane’s recently published “Twenty Dollars and Change: Harriett Tubman and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice and Democracy,” walks us through the history of the faces that adorn American currency and all the arguments for and against Tubman’s ascension to be the face of the twenty. He adroitly covers a vast historical landscape with poetry and precision and places the “Tubman Debate” into the context of current racial hierarchies and politics.

With regard to the notes themselves, we learn from the book that the Trump administration sought to delay the introduction of the bill and that after the wrangling, it won’t be in circulation anyhow until 2030. We also learn about the spirited debates in support of the decision as well as racially-coded efforts to keep her off the bill. More interestingly, Lusane covers some of the principled and nuanced objections, many leveled by African-American woman, about the danger of commoditizing Tubman (or any African-American woman) by placing her on currency- debasing her value as a person and ironically erasing the idea that she herself hardly ever had twenty dollars at her disposal. Many found it crass to suggest that conflating people and money is laudatory.

The book is well-researched and tightly written.

A people ought to pick its heroes carefully. Read this book.