When I read that an appeal for Harriet Tubman’s image to grace the front of the U.S. $20 bill would soon land on the Secretary of the Treasury’s desk, I was, to say the least, underwhelmed.
Earlier this year the group Women on 20s launched a poll asking who people would rather see on a $20 bill instead of seventh president Andrew Jackson. Harriet Tubman won. As a black woman and a feminist (and as someone who once played Harriet Tubman in her second-grade class play), I am painfully aware of the major impact that representation — or a lack thereof — has on the reflection of societal progress of underprivileged groups. Recalling the social media whirlpool of anguish after Michelle Obama’s jubilant, self-affirming speech of black womanhood at BET’s Black Girls Rock event last month — cries of reverse racism and even a #metoo hashtag that proclaimed #whitegirlsrock — it’s obvious that America is past-due for getting over its centuries of misogynoir.
But Harriet Tubman on a $20 bill is chump change.
It’s not that I don’t want to see her on my money, but there is a bitter irony to putting a black woman on a $20 bill when America makes it nearly impossible for black women to see Andrew Jackson’s face there in the first place.
Black women — from slaves to First Ladies — have served and suffered for as long as we have existed in this country, in every imaginable way. But despite the centuries of black female triumph as we toil through merely living in this unfriendly nation, built on our backs, the rest of the world gets to pick and choose whether or not we’re worthy of acknowledgement. We are either muted, the unseen, or blaring, painful to the senses. And the strident force in blocking us out is pervasive. Black men killed by the police get widespread media attention, for better or worse; we cannot say the same of the very many women brutalized or killed by law enforcement, or of the black trans women murdered at alarming rates. The leech of poverty, existing at the crossroads of capitalism and racism, disproportionately affects women of all races, but especially black people.
All of these small calamities are residual evils of the institution of slavery that Harriet Tubman risked her life, for decades, to try to dismantle. Black women need representation, but Harriet Tubman on a twenty feels like commiseration, a pat-on-the-back apology for being black — and that’s if she makes it there. If she does, it would always be a reminder (whenever $20 graces my presence, at least) that I deserve so much more “justice.”
Sierra Mannie is a writer based in Mississippi.