What if I told you a story about an American who began life in captivity, broke free, then risked life and limb numerous times to save hundreds of men, women and children from a life of captivity. What if I told you a story about an American who fought for human rights? What if I told you a story about an American who worked as an armed scout and spy for the United States Army?
These are not different people. This is the same person. This person led a life dedicated to justice, freedom and ending human suffering; even if it meant dying for that cause.
You would call that person a hero. You would call that person an American badass. You would demand history tell this person’s story over and over. You would demand statues be erected and schools named in this person’s honor.
Who is this American hero?
If you’re surprised, it’s only slightly understandable. You probably didn’t hear much about Tubman beyond elementary school. That’s when I learned her story. We learned of her bravery in leading former slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Sure, she was covered in Civil War history classes, but not to any great extent. Her life’s journey is an iconic story of triumph over evil and of American exceptionalism.
Yet these days, if you listen to the rancor across social media, you don’t hear people championing Tubman as a pivotal figure in American history. You hear people cheering the decision by U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to delay plans to put Tubman on the $20 bill.
Mnuchin claims this is not a high priority. Even if you take him at his word, the most troubling aspect of this story is the response from (white) people. At the low end, it’s ambivalence. But the most vocal proponents of this decision speak of Tubman as though she’s not an American, that she’s now worthy of the honor.
How did we arrive at this minor public debate? Last year, then-Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew announced Tubman would replace Jackson—seventh president of the United States—on the $20 bill. Tubman would be the first African American on the front of paper currency. The plan included keeping Jackson on the bill, but he’d be riding in the back of bus (on the backside).
For reasons beyond me, this seemed to cause quite a stir among conservatives. So much so, that rank-and-file conservatives cheered this week at Mnuchin’s announcement.
Personally speaking, I mostly don’t care whose face is on my foldin’ money. To me, the deeper subtext is more troubling; that people openly and vocally opposed this move with such vigor is disturbing to me. And, yes, the vast majority of the opposition is coming from white people, which confuses me. I’m a white guy (news flash!) and I don’t see the big deal about putting Tubman on the bill.
Some have argued Jackson, a former president, shouldn’t be pushed aside because Tubman was not a Founding Father or a president. My response: EXACTLY! There is no pecking order for whose face is placed on American currency. After all, did people make a stink over Susan B. Anthony coins? Probably, somewhere. But most people simply didn’t cotton to the idea of dollar coins in this country. Same thing with the Sacagawea coins. There might have been some quiet rumblings here and there about the person on the coin, but most people just seemed confused by the idea of dollar coins in circulation.
Fast forward to 2016 and the thought of a black woman on the $20 bill didn’t confuse people. It made people angry. In fairness, some of the backlash came from the left, as well. Some argued it was antithetical to Tubman’s legacy to place her image on currency. I’ll leave that to the liberal scholars and social justice warriors to hash out. You could say that argument is either absurd or warranted, but it’s not pernicious, like the not-so-veiled racist vitriol that flew around after the announcement.
Some said it was a form of “reverse racism” (which is both absurd and stupid). Others, like news commentator Greta Van Susteren, said it was “dividing the country.”
Is this really where we are? People feel “divided” simply because a black woman will be on money? If that’s true, then those people seriously need to get a grip on reality.
At the end of the day, I honestly didn’t care one way or the other. Until Mnuchin made his announcement. By itself, the decision seems innocuous and, possibly, rational; until you look at the recent actions and decisions by this administration.
Before Mnuchin’s decision, you had the President of the United States referring to Confederate statues as “beautiful” and lashing out at decisions to remove them from public spaces. Prior to that, you had that same president give soft-pedaled denouncement of violence “on all sides” in Charlottesville. Oh yeah, he also said there were “fine people” on the side of Nazis, Klansmen and white nationalists (racists). David freaking Duke thanked him—THANKED HIM!—for his response. And let’s not forget the “build the wall” and so-called “Muslim travel ban” this president wants.
Never mind that we haven’t even discussed that this decision also feels oddly personal, since Trump is a self-identified fan of Andrew Jackson. That a president’s cabinet secretary would do the bidding of an American president based upon his own fancy vs. a decision that was put through a public vetting process during the previous administration is unsettling.
Now, I’m not saying this administration is overtly racist, but there is no question their policy decisions, their rhetoric and their actions clearly favor one group of people over others; so much so, that white supremacists have openly thanked the president.
Against this backdrop, Mnuchin’s Tubman decision—and those who applauded it—leave me feeling slightly queasy about people’s grasp of history and their understanding of what it means to be an American. Harriet Tubman is an American hero…FOR ALL AMERICANS. Her history is complex, brutal, angering and, at times violent. But it is also inspiring and champions those who made this country better for its sins. It is a testimony of how America is better for those who fought against tyranny in order to form a more perfect union.
Harriet Tubman’s history is American history. We all should celebrate her, whether she’s on the $20 bill or not.