Why it might not be such a good idea for Harriet Tubman to be on the twenty dollar bill.


A powerful, grassroots group Women on 20s emerged earlier this year with the goal of petitioning the White House to order a redesign of the twenty dollar bill such that a woman, not Andrew Jackson, would be featured. “A woman’s place is on the money,” they said.

I voted in both rounds and proudly supported these efforts.

However, like the talented Jay Smooth, I have reservations, but for different reasons.

My concerns relate to historical memory. Ask anyone, probably as young as first grade, who Harriet Tubman is, and they have one answer: Harriet Tubman was the leader of the underground railroad. While Tubman absolutely did do many wonderful things, people intentionally and unintentionally use her narrative (and use her as a historical stand-in) to present a worldview in which enslavement was not nearly as bad as views that emerge when rigorously analyzing evidence. Indeed, the underground railroad is largely not true per se. This article does a pretty good job of looking at the myths of the underground railroad.

Narratives about underground railroad, in sum, suggest enslavement wasn’t as bad as it actually was because White people helped Black people and enslaved Blacks ran away forever, all the time. In turn, for those who did not runaway, the underground railroad mythology says they enjoyed or benefited from enslavement.

Given the widespread historical illiteracy (or under-literacy) in our culture, having Harriet Tubman on money would only further perpetuate misinformation about enslavement and further complicate the institution’s legacies. However, it would for sure change national discourses. 

Personally, I wish the extremely rebellious Rosa Parks would have won! 

[Added 6/14/15, see also: Keep Andrew Jackson on the $20: Critics of the current $20 bill forget the president who made American democracy democratic.]