“Change for a $20” read news blurbs on Wednesday, with the announcement that Harriet Tubman will appear on U.S. currency. It’s an exciting story for historians and for folks who care about the black past. And hopefully it will become not just a source of conversation about race and slavery, but will also generate some serious thought on the ways we remember our past.
One of the striking things about this news has been looking back on what was written last summer when the Treasury Department announced potential changes for the ten-dollar bill. Many responded to that announcement with calls for Tubman on the $20, including Amy Davidson, who explored the question of what money meant to Harriet Tubman. In 1845, Tubman paid a lawyer $5 to pursue a suit for her mother’s freedom, but that fee bought Tubman little more than the advice that she had slim chance of winning such a case. And Davidson pointed to two strange coincidences of Tubman’s life that lent significance to the $20 bill: it is the amount of Tubman’s hard-won military pension, paid in 1899, and also the sum that Tubman’s father paid for her mother’s freedom in the 1850s. Joshua Rothman also offered his thoughts on earlier efforts to put Tubman on currency, pointing to the oddness of having a person who was once a commodity appear on the bills of a nation whose wealth was built by black human property. Through that complication, though, Rothman found a key value of a Tubman note – it would encourage the country to move “toward changing the story it tells about itself,” incorporating human bondage into narratives of this land of opportunity. All of this came months before Wednesday’s announcement. It’s almost as though we’ve seen democracy in action: (some of) the people have spoken, and (parts of) the government have listened and responded.
I’ve also been thinking about the planned bills in relation to a conversation I had with a writer who wanted a historian’s perspective for a piece on Harriet Tubman as “amazing/badass.” I’m not sure what happened to that proposal, but part of our discussion was about storytelling and the question of what people overlook when they talk about Tubman. I said that people do tend to emphasize that she was well-armed and thoroughly prepared to kill anyone who stood in her way. But my sense is that we don’t reflect enough on the brutalities of the system that made Tubman and so many others prefer death in pursuit of freedom to life in bondage. I also talked about a description of Tubman’s work printed in a newspaper during the Civil War: “she was never seen on the plantation herself; but appointed a rendezvous eight or ten miles distant, so that if they were discovered at the first start she was not compromised.”
This, to me, is the most amazing thing about Harriet Tubman. Tubman helped liberate people who made the decision to seek freedom, who decided to risk so much to leave slavery. Maybe putting this one black woman on our money will help remind us of all the millions who navigated a world of enslavement, looking and moving towards freedom in more ways than we can ever know.