The Biden administration is examining ways to accelerate the process of adding abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s face to the $20 bill, an old initiative that was stalled during the Trump administration. Her likeness would either replace or join the one of Andrew Jackson, the nation’s seventh U.S. president and a slaveholder. It’s important that these new notes “reflect the history and diversity of our country,” the White House press secretary said in a recent news conference.
While President Biden’s move would elevate the profile of one of Maryland and the nation’s most heroic Black women, it’s a worthless act of pandering.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, Black women organized and mobilized national blocs that were game-changers in ensuring Mr. Biden’s ascendancy to the White House and solidified the Democratic Party regaining control of the U.S. Senate.
For five presidential elections, Black women have shown up to the polls more than any other group, despite being underrepresented at every level of local and federal political office. About 90% of them cast votes for President Biden in the last election, demonstrating once more their role as Democrats’ most loyal bloc. Black women delivered the vote with the hopes of seeing meaningful changes in their own lives. Is the move to put Ms. Tubman on a $20 bill supposed to be a form of repayment?
“The Moses of her people,” Ms. Tubman was enslaved on a farm in Dorchester County, escaped and risked her life to help others flee to freedom via the Underground Railroad. For Marylanders, Black women and probably many others around the nation, she’s larger than life. Her image has a place on my living room gallery wall, right below Sojourner Truth and to the left of Frederick Douglass, to serve as a reminder of where Black people in this country have been and to gain inspiration from those who came before me. But Tubman doesn’t need a place on my money. She already has her name and image on a museum and education center, a Maryland visitor center, a statue and an indelible mark in my heart.
Certainly, many countries put the images of people they admire on their legal tender, but Black women — and Marylanders — don’t need Ms. Tubman to replace Andrew Jackson. If Ms. Tubman were alive, would she even want her face on a note that’s made up of 75% cotton, a product that was produced by enslaved Africans in 15 states? In a capitalistic society that traded people like her, would she want to be used as currency and capital yet again? The nation has already seen Black people on currency — the Confederates had images of enslaved people on bank notes during the Civil War. Putting Ms. Tubman on legal tender changes nothing for Black women — or African Americans.
Black women work consistently for a better nation, but this country fails to work for us.
In a pandemic that’s caused the elimination of many jobs, Black women have faced the largest losses. And at $171,000, the net worth of a typical white family was nearly 10 times greater than that of a Black family ($17,150) in 2016. The ratio of white family wealth to those of Black families is higher today than at the beginning of the century.
President Biden can pay off the debt America owes African-American women by investing in our schools, neighborhoods and housing. He can expand Medicaid and medical coverage, raise the minimum wage, stimulate job creation and provide economic assistance to struggling Black businesses. Black women deserve to be invested in.
Designing and releasing new currency is a lengthy — and likely expensive — process. Save the money and honor Harriett Tubman’s legacy by diverting funds toward dismantling the systems that leave us on the bottom rung of the nation’s economic ladder.
Monica Williams (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer in Washington, D.C.