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Tubman on the 20: What the Choice Says About Our Time and Hers

Will her presence on an everyday object change how we think about slavery, and about the moral responsibilities of citizenship?
graphic: $20 bill with Harriet Tubman on it where Andrew Jackson would be

When Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew announced last week that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill as part of what the New York Times described as the “most sweeping and historically symbolic makeover of American currency in a century,” the nation—and the Internet—took notice.

Google searches for Tubman spiked by 4,250 percent. She trended on Twitter (of course), and a tweet of the New York Times article was shared more than 15,000 times. GIFs proliferated. Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders quickly voiced their approval for Tubman as a symbol of our national character, while Donald Trump and Ben Carson lamented Jackson’s removal from his traditional spot. And amid the celebration, there was plenty of criticism from the left, too. A 2015 essay by Feminista Jones arguing that “Tubman didn’t respect America’s economic system, so making her a symbol of it would be insulting” recirculated in the days after the announcement. Many argued that Jackson, a slaveowner who signed the Indian Removal Act, leading to the forcible removal and deaths of thousands of Native Americans, should be ditched from currency entirely, rather than just relegated to the back of the $20.

And to others, the announcement seemed to smack of uncomfortable compromise: Last June, Lew had invited the public to weigh in on which woman should replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill, an effort that garnered numerous suggestions, spirited debate, and an uproar from devotees of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, who didn’t want to see the nation’s first treasury secretary (and unlikely 21st-century hip-hop icon) dethroned. When Lew changed his tack, one group of feminists called him out for reneging on the promise to update the $10 bill, while another had argued all along that women deserved to be represented on the much more widely circulated $20 bill. The announcement, just months before Lew and President Obama leave office, seemed calculated to appeal on some level to all the different factions. But the details of proposed designs that would feature a bevy of suffragists and civil rights leaders arrayed together on the backs of $5 and $10 bills—in an “Avengers-style treatment,” as New York Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris wryly described the plans—raised eyebrows in some camps.

Then there’s the question of what to make of Harriet Tubman herself. The heroic protagonist of countless children’s biographies, she is known to most Americans for her work with the Underground Railroad, the secret network of abolitionists who ran safe houses and organized routes to help enslaved people of African descent escape to free states or Canada. She is estimated to have helped about 70 fugitives in about 13 separate missions, but her less often celebrated accomplishments—as a Union spy, a military commander, a supporter of radical abolitionist John Brown, and a suffragist—are no less significant.

Born into slavery in Maryland, Tubman was nearly killed as a teenager by an overseer who hit her in the head with an iron weight, and she escaped at the age of 27 in 1849. She carried a pistol during her 11 years working on the Underground Railroad, using songs, codes, and animal sounds to signal when it was safe for the fugitives in her care to reveal their locations. Tubman helped John Brown plan the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1858, and served as a nurse, scout, and spy for three years during the Civil war before joining force with Union Col. James Montgomery of the Second Carolina Volunteers. In June 1863, she became the first woman to lead an armed military raid when she guided Montgomery up the Combaahee River to destroy Confederate outposts and liberate more than 700 slaves, and later successfully petitioned to receive a military pension. (She was buried with military honors when she died in 1913.) She appeared often at women’s suffrage conventions and in her later years, living in New York, she became a popular speaker on the topic. An advocate for the aged and disabled as well, she purchased 25 acres adjoining her Auburn, NY, property to found a nursing home for African Americans in 1896.

Tubman will be the first African-American and the first woman since Martha Washington’s 19th-century appearance on a silver certificate to grace our paper currency. She’s also someone we revere today, in part, for defying the profoundly unjust laws of her time. Will her presence on an everyday object change how (and how often) we think about slavery, and about the moral responsibilities of citizenship?

NYU Stories checked in with Social and Cultural Analysis Chair Jennifer Morgan—a scholar of early African American history, histories of racial ideology, and women and gender—to talk about the politics of commemoration and what classroom discussions about slavery often miss. 

When Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew announced last week that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill as part of what the New York Times described as the “most sweeping and historically symbolic makeover of American currency in a century,” the nation—and the Internet—took notice.

Google searches for Tubman spiked by 4,250 percent. She trended on Twitter (of course), and a tweet of the New York Times article was shared more than 15,000 times. GIFs proliferated. Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders quickly voiced their approval for Tubman as a symbol of our national character, while Donald Trump and Ben Carson lamented Jackson’s removal from his traditional spot. And amid the celebration, there was plenty of criticism from the left, too. A 2015 essay by Feminista Jones arguing that “Tubman didn’t respect America’s economic system, so making her a symbol of it would be insulting” recirculated in the days after the announcement. Many argued that Jackson, a slaveowner who signed the Indian Removal Act, leading to the forcible removal and deaths of thousands of Native Americans, should be ditched from currency entirely, rather than just relegated to the back of the $20.

And to others, the announcement seemed to smack of uncomfortable compromise: Last June, Lew had invited the public to weigh in on which woman should replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill, an effort that garnered numerous suggestions, spirited debate, and an uproar from devotees of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, who didn’t want to see the nation’s first treasury secretary (and unlikely 21st-century hip-hop icon) dethroned. When Lew changed his tack, one group of feminists called him out for reneging on the promise to update the $10 bill, while another had argued all along that women deserved to be represented on the much more widely circulated $20 bill. The announcement, just months before Lew and President Obama leave office, seemed calculated to appeal on some level to all the different factions. But the details of proposed designs that would feature a bevy of suffragists and civil rights leaders arrayed together on the backs of $5 and $10 bills—in an “Avengers-style treatment,” as New York Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris wryly described the plans—raised eyebrows in some camps.

Then there’s the question of what to make of Harriet Tubman herself. The heroic protagonist of countless children’s biographies, she is known to most Americans for her work with the Underground Railroad, the secret network of abolitionists who ran safe houses and organized routes to help enslaved people of African descent escape to free states or Canada. She is estimated to have helped about 70 fugitives in about 13 separate missions, but her less often celebrated accomplishments—as a Union spy, a military commander, a supporter of radical abolitionist John Brown, and a suffragist—are no less significant.

Born into slavery in Maryland, Tubman was nearly killed as a teenager by an overseer who hit her in the head with an iron weight, and she escaped at the age of 27 in 1849. She carried a pistol during her 11 years working on the Underground Railroad, using songs, codes, and animal sounds to signal when it was safe for the fugitives in her care to reveal their locations. Tubman helped John Brown plan the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1858, and served as a nurse, scout, and spy for three years during the Civil war before joining force with Union Col. James Montgomery of the Second Carolina Volunteers. In June 1863, she became the first woman to lead an armed military raid when she guided Montgomery up the Combaahee River to destroy Confederate outposts and liberate more than 700 slaves, and later successfully petitioned to receive a military pension. (She was buried with military honors when she died in 1913.) She appeared often at women’s suffrage conventions and in her later years, living in New York, she became a popular speaker on the topic. An advocate for the aged and disabled as well, she purchased 25 acres adjoining her Auburn, NY, property to found a nursing home for African Americans in 1896.

Tubman will be the first African-American and the first woman since Martha Washington’s 19th-century appearance on a silver certificate to grace our paper currency. She’s also someone we revere today, in part, for defying the profoundly unjust laws of her time. Will her presence on an everyday object change how (and how often) we think about slavery, and about the moral responsibilities of citizenship?

NYU Stories checked in with Social and Cultural Analysis Chair Jennifer Morgan—a scholar of early African American history, histories of racial ideology, and women and gender—to talk about the politics of commemoration and what classroom discussions about slavery often miss. 

Many of us first hear of Harriet Tubman in elementary school—not necessarily an arena known for nuance. Now that she’s suddenly in the national limelight, do you think her life and work will be revisited with more scrutiny?

photo: professor Jennifer Morgan in front of a bookshelf

What do most of us know about Harriet Tubman? We know she defies the logic of commodification, we know she is someone who performs heroic work. Her story is a great story—in this business of leading people out of slavery and crossing enemy lines, she is a clear-cut hero. But one of the reasons why I don't teach about Harriet Tubman is that her experience feels so singular to me—I teach on the history of Afro-American women in slavery and I tend to shy away from revisiting terrain that students might have already encountered.

Putting her image on the $20 bill is an act of commemoration, and one thing that we know about acts of commemoration is that they tell us so much about the moment in which commemoration is happening—perhaps much more than they do about the granular histories that the people being commemorated actually lived. To me that’s the interesting part of what’s happening right now, though I’m sure we’re going to learn a little more about Harriet Tubman as these conversations continue.

In the Washington Post last week, Philip Kennicott mused on which Harriet Tubman would appear on our currency: the beloved grandmotherly figure, as commonly photographed in her sober post-war clothing and head wrap, or someone younger and more rebellious, clad in outdoor garb and carrying a gun. Which do you think it will be?
I can’t imagine that the treasury would go with an image that’s already in circulation—they will commission something new. And I think that neither of those images will quite fit the bill. Harriet Tubman as a revolutionary fighter is not going to go over well on American currency, despite the fact the many of the men who are on currency right now were soldiers and associated with violence. With Harriet Tubman they will need to find a happy medium, where she is neither a little old lady nor a powerful woman in her prime.

Everyone likes to imagine that they would have been like Harriet Tubman—that we all would have risked our lives to help people escape slavery. But, of course, most people did not work on the Underground Railroad. What message does it send to put such a heroic figure—whose experience, as you say, was so singular—on our currency?
I think that the politics of commemoration is very distinct from the politics of revolutionary change. And I think you could make an argument about how commemorating individual heroes is always a problem because it erases all of the other people who were there to make that heroism possible. However, that's not what we are talking about here. We are talking about a landscape in which the vast majority of our public commemorative spaces commemorate white men who participated in war. By changing the language of commemoration, by, say, erecting a monument to Martin Luther King on the National Mall, or opening an Afro-American history museum in Washington D.C., or by changing the name of a street, or by putting Harriet Tubman on our money, we’re saying that there’s an expanded place of commemoration. We are recognizing that there other acts of heroism that we need to address.

But what does commemoration actually do to effect change in our own time? There are those who would argue it’s an empty gesture.
I think that depends what you think about symbols. For people who don't see anyone who looks like themselves commemorated anywhere in the landscape of their life, commemoration can be like life or death. It really can be a signal that the people from whom you descend have been erased from the history books. It’s not a small thing. So to fight hard and long to commemorate suffering or heroism or individuals who led us to be better than is really crucial. I think it’s much easier for people who are surrounded by commemorations of their own location to say this is not important. They can say, “Sure, put some lady on the bill, it doesn’t matter.” But those voices are people who feel like their place in history is firm. For those of us whose lives have not been marked by sites of commemoration it can be very meaningful.

Is putting someone on money a different kind of commemoration than, say, building a statue?
Money is constantly in our hands, and in one sense that can make us stop seeing it. Ten years ago before Hamilton opened I would bet that the vast majority of Americans had no idea who was on their $10 bill, and whether or not he was a president. On the other hand, I’ve spoken with people from Jamaica, where Nanny—a woman and the leader of a major slave revolt—is on the Jamaican currency, and they’ve said that’s very important to them. And when you go to other countries, you notice who is on their bills. I did see someone tweet “the first time you pay someone with a stack of Tubmans” with a GIF of a big guy dancing with this look of enormous joy and pleasure.

There were so many strange twists and turns in the public debate leading up to this announcement. Who could have predicted a Broadway musical playing a role, for example?
I'm on the executive council of the Organization of American Historians, and when the news came to us two years ago that there would be a woman on the $10 bill, we had this moment where we laughed because we realized we’d never really thought about that as a possibility before. To have someone raise it felt really good and interesting. Later, when we heard that maybe a woman wasn’t going on the $10 bill, or was going on the back instead of the front, we realized it was because of Hamilton, the musical, and we ended up having a whole conversation about that as a source of critical interest in a historical person, which in itself has value. Then we all started taking money out of our wallets to talk about who we would remove to put a woman on! There are these moments of eruption when people are talking about the role of her past in the present and there some really interesting and unpredictable conversations that can come of that. Maybe the the most hopeful outcome of the whole conversation about Tubman right now is making people wonder what it means to replace a slave-owning, Native American decimating president with a woman who took individual measures to free people. As a historian and as a teacher I am all for this. I want us to be thinking really carefully about what it means to acknowledge the role of slavery in the history of the United States. Do I think that putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 is going to do all of that work? Obviously not. Could it insert a conversation in a place where it has not happened before? Yes. And that would be good.

As a history teacher, is there a particular lesson about Harriet Tubman’s life, or about slavery more generally, that you hope will come out of that conversation?
I think what Harriet Tubman can do for us, in the here and now, is to get us to talk about the incredible sacrifices that some people were willing to make to get away. Slavery was about many things, and one of the ways to understand the lived experience of enslavement is to think about it as the lack of freedom to move. You are unable to go anywhere or do anything without written permission from another person. So the idea of running away is about more than just trying to escape abuse or bad people or hard labor. It’s also about claiming the direction in which you are going, and not everyone can do it. Enslaved women were, through their reproductive lives, giving birth to children whose lives were enriching the slave's owner. There’s a profound conflict between what we think motherhood is supposed to convey—love and caring and emotional ties to a child—and what motherhood conveys under slavery, which is the commodification of your child and your absolute inability to protect that child from sale, from death, from anything. So what Tubman symbolizes is an effort that was taken up by many people who we don't know about to simply move their families and themselves out of danger into some kind of safety. I think that that is a profound thing to reckon with. When you look at these snapshots of slavery, of a group of people working in a field, for example, you don’t see the virtual fence that is around them. You don't see the fact that they are being compelled to be there everyday and that their brother or their sister or their mother or their uncle or their daughter has been taken from them. I think that that business of movement and autonomy is so profound. That is something I would hope this conversation around Harriet Tubman helps us to think about—what it really meant to take someone out of slavery.