Counterfeit $20s & the Appeal of Harriet Tubman

When I discovered that Harriet Tubman–one of my favorite role models and revolutionary soul sistas–was set to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, I almost caused a scene. I immediately took to Twitter to distribute money-touting gifs and sent an email to the entire staff, alerting them of the good news.

 

My joy was instinctive. It felt as if one of my long-lost ancestors was finally claiming her rightful place in American history, and in this case, currency. But as I scrolled through my timeline, I was quickly reminded of how ironic and contradictory this moment truly is. Though the rants and think-pieces were a bit of a buzz kill, they raised crucial questions that my woke soul simply could not ignore.

If Harriet were alive, would she want to be the face of the same currency that was used to sell her own body? What does it mean to honor a formerly enslaved Black woman in a country where Black people are still enslaved in many ways?

For the rest of the day, I grappled with these questions and finally, while riding home on the train, arrived to a complicated conclusion. As I was makin’ it rain on Twitter, I realized that it any other context, I wouldn’t feel comfortable promoting capitalism in any form, especially via dollar bills.

Capitalism has negatively affected my life in many ways and I am always seeking ways to circumvent it. But as a Black woman in America, I am under constant pressure to participate in order to survive, which has fostered a deep dissonance. The inner-conflict that many are feeling today is completely understandable. To exist in a society that was built and thrives off of the exploitation of your people is to be in a constant state of compromise. But every now and then, we stumble upon causes for cautious celebration–like today.

We should celebrate the fact that Harriet is finally being recognized for her brave, historic, and revolutionary actions that eventually led to the end of chattel slavery. We should celebrate the fact that, for the first time in our history, a woman will be associated with U.S. currency–the life blood of our economy. We should also celebrate what this means for our children, who will grow up accustomed to having symbols of racial and gender equality at their fingertips.

But as we commemorate the undeniable symbolism of this moment, we should mourn the fact that a symbol is all we have to celebrate. In a year where we have lost too many Black men and women to name, state-sanctioned violence and modern-day slavery (aka mass incarceration) remain a reality. Black women are the fasting growing prison population and yet a Black woman, who once suffered under the same spirit of occupation, will now be the face of American capitalism.

Unfortunately, we live in a country where the idea of democracy is stronger than the actual implementation of it. And today was a perfect demonstration of America’s contradictions.But given our long history of false promises and faux progress, today’s announcement should come as no surprise. As we revel in the aesthetic of this moment and continue to analyze what it really means, my hope is that the next generation of Harriets are awakened and empowered by the same bill that was built to destroy us.

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