Mon | Jul 23, 2018

US Treasury right on the money

Published:Sunday | April 24, 2016 | 12:00 AM

It's been a long time coming. Harriett Tubman, the abolitionist fighter who led hundreds of enslaved African-Americans to freedom on the Underground Railroad, will be the new face of the US $20 bill. Slaveholder Andrew Jackson, who, ironically, hated paper currency, will be put on the back of the bill. Not quite the same as the back of the bus. But still!

The Tubman bill will be issued in 2020, the 100th anniversary of American women winning the right to vote. Cynics say it's a case of two-for-one: The first black and the first woman in more than a century. If Tubman had been gay and physically challenged, that would have been even better: four for the price of one!

I caught the story last Wednesday on the BBC World Service. And I heard a brilliant interview with Stephanie Folling, an MEd student at the University of Maryland in urban and minority education. She had tweeted, "If you want to see Blk ppl on American currency, look no further than Confederate money. Hell, we were the currency." The BBC invited her to elaborate.

Stephanie took her tweet way beyond the 140-character limit: "It's definitely an important cultural moment here in America. However, it brings up the duality and the complexity of what it means to be an African-American in this country. On the one hand, we are very excited to see ourselves represented. Harriett Tubman is a very illustrious figure within our community and in the entire lexicon of African-American history.

"On the other hand, we have to bring up the global economy that slavery produced, that this nation was literally built on the back of blacks, specifically black women who were used as breeders and were studded. So to see a black female face on our currency is monumental, both negatively and positively."




I looked for those Confederate bank notes and found disturbing images of smiling black people happily working in the fields. This was a delusional world where happy darkies sang lustily, contented with their lot in life. Abraham Lincoln mashed up the dolly house. In November 1860, he was elected president of the United States. He vigorously opposed the expansion of slavery, which was still legal in the South.

Angered by Lincoln's anti-slavery politics, seven Southern states broke away from the Union and formed a confederacy: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas. Four more states soon joined the slaveholders: Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

The reaction to President Obama's election in 2008 was certainly far less extreme. No states broke away from the Union to form their own government. But the racism at the core of the confederacy is very much alive and well. Many racist Americans live in a parallel universe where Barack Obama could not possibly be a citizen. Much more their president! They have virtually withdrawn from the Union, hoping and praying for the day when Donald Trump will make America right and white again.

And, by the way, this is what two-faced Trump had to say about Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill: "Harriett Tubman is fantastic. I would love to, I would love to leave Andrew Jackson and see if we can maybe come up with another denomination. Maybe we do the $2 bill, or we do another bill. I don't like seeing it. Yes, I think it's pure political correctness."

Trump sounds exactly like Ben Carson, who often looks like a white man in black face. Here's Carson on Jackson and Tubman: "Well, I think Andrew Jackson was a tremendous secretary, ah, I mean a tremendous president. Andrew Jackson was the last president who actually balanced the federal budget where we had no national debt. In honour of that, we kick him off of the money. I love Harriett Tubman. I love what she did. But we can find another way to honour her. Maybe, maybe a two-dollar bill."

Both Trump and Carson want to devalue Harriett Tubman. The $2 bill has a very low profile. It was actually taken out of production in 1966, coming back a decade later. Due to lack of demand, a relatively small number of two-dollar bills is printed. By contrast, the $20 bill is the most widely circulated. It's in the ATMs. And it's used internationally.




In Jamaica, we've had our own contentious debates about who should be placed on bank notes. Louise Bennett and Bob Marley are popular choices. But, only national heroes and late prime ministers are eligible. We need to change that backward policy. Or make both Marley and Bennett national heroes. These cultural icons have a far greater impact on national identity than dead politicians.

Before Usain Bolt, Bob Marley carried Jamaican culture to the world. Reggae music and Rastafari livity have branded Jamaica globally. The 'Jamaica, Jamaica!' exhibition to be mounted in Paris next year is a classic example of the global reach of our culture.

The curator, Sebastien Carayol, is visiting Jamaica this week. He will give a talk on the project at the University of the West Indies on Thursday at 6 p.m. in the Neville Hall Lecture Theatre, Faculty of Humanities and Education. The public is invited to attend. Bob Marley is a key figure in the exhibition. He's not on the money. But, like Harriett Tubman's, his currency endures.

- Carolyn Cooper is a cultural consultant. Visit her bilingual blog at Email feedback to and