Jay Smooth on Harriet Tubman Twenties

[Content Note: Misogynoir; slavery; class warfare.]

Via Fusion, Jay Smooth addresses the complicated symbolism of replacing Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, and he's brilliant as always:

Jay Smooth, a thin black man, appears onscreen and speaks directly to the camera.

"If an eagle be imprisoned / On the back of a coin / And the coin is tossed into the sky, / That coin will spin, / That coin will flutter, / But the eagle will never fly." That's a poem by one of my favorite writers, Henry Dumas, and his words have been on my mind for this past week as I watched a group named Women on 20s petitioning the government to take Andrew Jackson off of the twenty-dollar bill so we can replace him with someone who's not one of American history's wickedest villains, or, more specifically, to replace him with a woman, or, more specifically, to replace him with Harriet Tubman.

And when I heard about this idea, I loved it right away. I mean, we're long overdue to have a woman on one of these bills. There's no greater women, no greater American, to honor than Harriet Tubman.

And I don't ever really want to see Andrew Jackson's face, because he was a jerk. I don't want to be reminded of the Trail of Tears every time I buy my groceries.

So when I heard about this campaign, I signed on right away. But, I gotta say, after having some time to sit with it, I'm having second thoughts about whether it's justifiable to put Harriet Tubman on our money. I mean, don't get me wrong: Harriet Tubman's place in history by any measure is great and powerful and virtuous, but when you look at our money's place in history, it's not so much. I mean, it's great and powerful, but it's not so much with the virtue.

The dollar is history's measure of the distance between power and virtue—how far we will travel from our humanity in pursuit of this thing. [holds up and points at $20 bill] America was built on our willingness to believe that someone else is less than human as long as that belief would get us more of this. [points at bill]

What we're basically talking about right now is honoring the work Harriet Tubman did to free us from slavery by putting her face on the reason we were in slavery.

So, I'm just not sure how I feel about this hair-of-the-dog-that-bit-you kind of tribute.

I mean, there would be at least one upside, which is that it would make racists really uncomfortable. And as Jelani Cobb pointed out on Twitter, there would suddenly be a whole segment of the country that never wanted to touch twenty-dollar bills again.

And I think that is a promising prospect, because here's what we could do: We could print up the Harriet Tubman twenties, and then for everyone who doesn't want to touch those, we could print another set of twenties that we charge extra for. We could print a buncha other twenties that have Ronald Reagan or Robert E. Lee or Jimmy Buffett, or whoever they want on them, and then charge a 10% fear and loathing tax to get those twenties, and then we collect all the money we get from them and put it into a little thing called reparations.

Do you see where I'm going here? If we can make that happen, I am all in favor of these Harriet Tubman twenties.

Because as Kirsten West Savali pointed out in The Root, putting a black woman's face on the bills is not gonna help the almost half of real-life single black women who have zero or negative wealth. It will not slow down the school-to-prison pipeline that keeps so many of our children from truly knowing freedom.

I mean, symbolic measures can be cool. Our relationship with money will always be complex and conflicted and morally ambiguous—and maybe putting the face of the woman who freed us on the thing for which we were enslaved is the realest way to honor the American paradox.

But, at the end of the day, I care a lot less about putting Harriet Tubman's face on those bills than I do about putting her great-great-great-grandchildren's hands on more of those bills. The only real tribute we can make to Harriet Tubman is if we go out there, and find the North Star, and do something to liberate her descendents from the real-life injustice they face today.

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