All Commentary
Thursday, May 14, 2015

Let Tubman on the Twenty

Is it wrong to put an ex-slave on US currency?


Feminist writer and social worker Feminista Jones recently wrote an article for the Washington Post’s “PostEverything” blog, arguing against the campaign to put Harriet Tubman on the twenty dollar bill.

She writes that Tubman is best known for violating the “property rights” of slave owners by helping slaves escape to freedom, so it would betray Tubman’s legacy to put her on the currency that was a part of that economic system.

“By escaping slavery and helping many others do the same, Tubman became historic for essentially stealing ‘property.’ Her legacy is rooted in resisting the foundation of American capitalism. Tubman didn’t respect America’s economic system, so making her a symbol of it would be insulting.”

Unsurprisingly, I have all kinds of arguments with Jones’s characterization of capitalism as innately oppressive and as particularly bad for women and for minorities. But even leaving those aside I think that Jones is wrong.

Harriet Tubman’s work guiding escaping slaves to freedom was part of a nationwide argument about what property was. It was an argument that was carried out in the court cases, the sermons, the newspapers, and the novels of the Northern and Southern states, as well as in the parlors and around the dining room tables. It was an argument that was often recorded in the blood and the tears of black Americans.

And Harriet Tubman helped the right side win that argument.

Her work, and the work of countless named and unnamed others like her, assured that it is no longer possible legally to exchange a stack of twenty dollar bills for the body and the life and the future of another human being. Her work, and their work, means that the American idea of what constitutes “property” no longer includes other humans.

One does not need to think that property is theft (or slavery), or that capitalism is always and all ways oppressive, in order to challenge the idea that it is legitimate to own a person in the same way that we can own a car or a hammer. Putting Harriet Tubman’s face on the twenty dollar bill should remind us of the dreadful purposes to which money can be put and of our responsibility to do better.

With Tubman’s face on the twenty dollar bill, perhaps we would think more carefully about the money we invest in policies that disproportionately harm America’s black communities — policies like the drug war, like occupational licensing, like mandatory monopoly education.

If we want to think about ways in which Tubman’s mission to free her people can be carried on today, we need to challenge the prevailing ideas about what it is legitimate to do to our fellow human beings in the same way that Tubman challenged the idea of property.

Read more about Harriet Tubman and her fight for freedom in Lawrence Reed’s profile of her, “Risking Life and Limb for Liberty.”