It's Complicated: On Tubman, Race, and Progress in America

After many years of struggle to achieve equal opportunity and accommodations for African Americans in this nation, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is famously quoted as saying, "What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can't afford to buy a hamburger?" Dr. King's statement powerfully and succinctly illuminates the complicated nature of race and progress in America. Quite often progress is followed by the immediate recognition that much more progress in needed to achieve equality among the races in America.

Hence, the complicated nature of reactions to U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew's announcement that nineteenth-century abolitionist Harriet Tubman will replace President Andrew Jackson on the face of $20 American currency. In so doing, Tubman will become the first African American featured on American paper currency and the first woman featured on American currency in over 100 years. This is undeniably an historic achievement.

On one hand, if there is any historic American personality deserving of this honor, it would be Harriet Tubman. She was a model American at a time when many states regarded her as property instead of as a citizen. After escaping to freedom in the North, she courageously returned to the South hundreds of times to lead others born into slavery into freedom via The Underground Railroad. Tubman embodies all that should be celebrated and honored in America: bravery, ingenuity, intelligence, loyalty, and strength.

Furthermore, a retrospective view of President Andrew Jackson proves him unworthy of the honor that had been bestowed upon him. The legacy of America's 7th President is, at best, problematic. During his lifetime, Jackson personally held hundreds of human beings in captivity and forced them to work as free labor. He built his wealth on the weary backs of the captive, who harvested cotton on his over 1,050 acre plantation. A runaway notice from Jackson himself offered a $50 reward for the return of "a Mulatto Man Slave". Repugnantly, the notice also offered "ten dollars extra for every hundred lashes...to the amount of three hundred" to the captors.

Jackson's cruelty reflects the worse of our nation and is without honor. If anyone deserves to be removed from America currency, it is Jackson. Unfortunately, Jackson will not journey far. His image will still be captured on the back of the $20 bill.

The economic disparity among the races in this nation is not accidental, but intentional, and multi-faceted. It reeks of the smoke which bellowed from the ruins of Tulsa's Black Wall Street and is stained red by the innocent blood which flowed down the street of the same. It looks like the redlining of communities and the construction of urban highways which destabilized the economies of the urban core in the mid-20th century. It sounds like names believed to be too ethnic that appear a top the resumes of qualified applicants who do not get called in for an interview.

It is J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO. It is President Richard Nixon's War on Drugs. It is President Ronald Reagan's "Reaganomics". It is President William Jefferson Clinton's Crime Bill. It is the suffocating reality and presence of American racism and its economic manifestations. Just as King openly questioned the value of having access to a lunch counter but lacking the financial resources to order from the menu, there is a certain unintended cruelty in placing our nation's greatest black abolitionist on currency at a time when many of her descendents are struggling to make ends meet.

Still, like many, when Tubman's $20 bills are released, I will be in line at the bank with unyielding excitement. I will proudly display them and distribute them to my children. Yet, as I pass public inner city schools that are still without adequate resources to properly teach our youth, as I pass the unemployment line, and as I witness another family in line at the grocery store wrestling with hard decisions in the checkout line, seeking to determine what items they must leave at the store because they cannot afford it all, I will question whether or not this is the freedom Harriet Tubman fought for.

Then, if I have it on me, I will hand them a Tubman $20 to assist with the bill.