Home » Why Harriet Tubman on the $20 Is Symbolism That Matters

Why Harriet Tubman on the $20 Is Symbolism That Matters

One of America’s most fervently held—and desperately clung to—myths is that our racial hierarchy is neither engineered nor rigorously enforced, but the natural and inevitable result of every group getting exactly what they deserve. At the core of this fictive theory is the belief that the innately civilized, law-abiding, industrious, and intelligent nature of whiteness justifies its position atop the racial order, just as the inherent pathology, criminality, ignorance, and self-defeating ways of blackness perpetually constrain it to the bottom. Of the myriad self-absolving and racist lies propagated by white supremacist culture, the notion that black folks have only themselves to blame for their oppression is perhaps the most insidious. It’s a denialist view wholly divorced from both the consequences of American policy and the realities of our past, and its hegemony requires defensive maintenance of a national memory built on lies of historical omission.

This whitewashing happens not just symbolically, in textbooks, monuments, memorials, and markers, but materially, in policies that directly impact the life, death and political power of black Americans. Affronted by black emancipation and enfranchisement after losing the Civil War, defeated Confederates developed the Lost Cause mythos, white supremacist propaganda with multiple aims. Relying heavily on public symbols, it sought to project a Southern antebellum innocence onto the past, while telegraphing absolute white power onto the future. To that end, Lost Cause mythologists portrayed Confederate leaders—men whose most notable contribution to history was armed defense of white folks’ right to buy, sell, and enslave black people—as heroes. Anonymous Confederate combatants, cast in bronze and stone, stood sentry atop lofty pedestals that implicitly demanded public veneration. The Confederacy’s dishonorable fight for black enslavement was tacitly rendered an honorable but lost cause. In town centers, along avenues, and in myriad other public spaces, these statues stood as constant signifiers of racial terror. On courthouse lawns and statehouse grounds, they were strategically erected to serve as reminders to black folks that those institutions had no regard for them.

Black folks, then as now, implicitly and empirically understood how white supremacist symbols are inextricably linked to white terror violence, imbuing the environment with harassment and intimidation, race-stamping public spaces as immutably white, and emboldening anti-black vigilantism. Civil rights activist, educator, and Charleston, South Carolina, native Mamie Garvin Fields grew up in the shadow of a statue that went up in 1887 depicting politician John C. Calhoun, a vocal and virulent racist who once called black enslavement a “positive good.”

“Our white city fathers wanted to keep what [Calhoun] stood for alive,” Fields stated in her memoirs nearly a century later. “Blacks took that statue personally. As you passed by, here was Calhoun looking you in the face and telling you, ‘Nigger, you may not be a slave, but I am back to see you stay in your place.’”

Black folks protested white supremacist symbols littering the landscape, a brave risk under the often-lethal threat of Jim Crow, which those same monuments monumentalized and made tangible. When the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in 1931 erected a “loyal slave monument”—a type of Confederate marker promoting the insane idea that black people were happiest being enslaved by white folks—near the West Virginia site of John Brown’s rebellion at Harpers Ferry, the NAACP demanded a tablet be placed nearby to honor Brown, noting a counter was needed to the “nationally publicized tablet giving the Confederate point of view” and the rising movement of “copperheadism,” or Confederate sympathy and slavery apologism. W. E. B. Du Bois, who wrote that the dedication event for the UDC’s monument had been a “pro-slavery celebration,” drafted the proposed wording for the Brown memorial, which called the abolitionist’s rebellion “a blow that woke a guilty nation.” It was never erected, but the NAACP made its resistance known.

Mamie Garvin Fields described how she and other black children would “carry something with us, if we knew we would be passing that way, in order to deface” the Calhoun statue in Charleston, to “scratch up the coat, break the watch chain, try to knock off the nose—because he looked like he was telling you that there was a place for ‘niggers’ and ‘niggers must stay there.’” Newspaper accounts catalog yet more protests using defacement, as in 1888 when a statue of the figure of Justice positioned at Calhoun’s feet was found with “a tin kettle in her hand and a cigar in her mouth”; in 1892, when someone painted the face of the Justice statue “lily” white; or in 1894, when a young black boy named Andrew Haig shot at the figure of Justice with a tiny pistol. A park keeper was ultimately hired to stop “the nuisances and depredations now committed by goats, boys and night prowlers,” but apparently failed in that mission.

In 1895, the Calhoun statue was removed. A local newspaper article recounts how, as the statue was being lowered off its pedestal by a rope, a group of black boys watching nearby “skillfully pasted Mr. Calhoun in the eye with a lump of mud.” The original Calhoun’s plinth stood forty-five feet in the air. In 1896, a replacement Calhoun was erected on a pedestal some 115 feet off the ground. Officially, the first Calhoun statue was removed because of design flaws, but Fields contends that black “children and adults beat up John C. Calhoun so badly that the whites had to come back and put him way up high, so we couldn’t get to him.” The figure was finally removed for good on June 25, 2020.

Black protests against white supremacist symbols continued during the Civil Rights era, becoming even more overt. In 1966, after an all-white jury acquitted the white man who admitted to murdering Sammy Younge Jr., a black student activist attending Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, thousands of protesters congregated at the town’s central Confederate marker, spray-painting its pedestal with Younge’s name and the phrase “Black Power.” Less than two years later, just after the April 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., black students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill expressed their grief and rage by dousing a campus Confederate statue known as “Silent Sam” in red paint. After a young black man named James Cates was murdered by a white motorcycle gang in 1970, black students rallied at the foot of the monument. In a call-back to those demonstrations, UNC-Chapel Hill student Maya Little would pour a mixture of her own blood and red ink on the statue in April 2018, in an action that presaged its toppling by protesters four months later, boldly and accurately stating that “the statue and all statues like it are already drenched in black blood.”

The exclusion of black folks, and particularly black women, from America’s monuments, money, and more has always been a warped reflection of whiteness wholly incongruous with the actual face of this country.

In these and far too many examples to describe here, black folks have protested the iconography of white power from its earliest appearance, as part of a broader movement toward the dismantling of white supremacy, writ large. W. E. B. Du Bois, Mamie Garvin Fields, the early NAACP—all were involved in seeking rights for black folks in various spheres, in calling out white supremacist socio-politics of their day. But in tandem with those efforts to secure black folks’ civil rights, they also noted the way those symbols attempted to write black folks out of American history, and how the net effect of symbols that conveyed anti-blackness and white terror added fuel to the prevalence of both.

This was never mere conjecture. In fact, a 2021 study by researchers at the University of Virginia further confirms it, concluding there is a direct correlation between Confederate monuments and white racial terror, and that “the number of lynching victims in a county is a positive and significant predictor of the number of Confederate memorializations in that county.” Those markers, most of which still stand, continue to do the work of white supremacy. But there are hints of progress in acknowledging the damage they do, the hostile ambience they create, and the structural inequities their existence perpetuates. In late 2021, a Tennessee appeals court granted a new trial to a black man who had been convicted by an all-white jury who deliberated in a room full of Confederate memorabilia—including a portrait of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, a framed Confederate flag, and a placard displaying the insignia of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The appellate court’s jurists agreed with the argument that white supremacist symbology had an “inherently prejudicial” impact on jurors. Just as the architects of the Lost Cause had hoped they would.

In Twenty Dollars and Change, scholar Clarence Lusane makes the same argument about the power of symbols and their impact on public consciousness, but in its inverse, suggesting that the “inherently prejudicial” effect of the images we choose can and should be used to augment larger struggles for real change. Using the debate around the U.S. Treasury’s promise to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the front of a twenty-dollar bill as a springboard, Lusane argues that “rolling out a Tubman twenty not only disrupts and diminishes the legacies of white supremacy that persist in official narratives, but that doing so is a necessary step toward diminishing and abolishing racist distortions of our political economy, health and medical institutions, and justice system.”

“This is why the book is named Twenty Dollars and Change,” writes Lusane: “it is an effort to address the connection between official narratives and power, and the urgent need to transform both.”

What does it mean to have Tubman on the twenty, as well as poet Maya Angelou on the quarter, as white supremacist legislators and white parents work in tandem to ban Angelou’s books and legally prohibit teaching about slavery using the mislabeled racist boogeyman of “critical race theory”? How do we reckon with the incongruity of putting Tubman and Angelou on money even as racial capitalism is directly responsible for black women, who have the highest labor force participation rate among women, being paid 36 percent less than white men and 20 percent less than white women, being three times as likely to live in poverty as white women, and suffering the greatest job losses and economic suffering among all American women amidst the coronavirus pandemic?

If representation didn’t matter, the right wouldn’t be fighting so hard to keep it all white.

More broadly, Lusane elucidates how structural racism and the convulsive and circular political violence of white backlash—embedded in contemporary Republican politics, anti-black voting suppression, and resistance to legislation that would repair the Supreme Court’s decimation of the Voting Rights Act; anti-protest laws, some allowing vicious attacks against demonstrators, passed at a fast clip after the anti-racist uprisings following the police murder of George Floyd; and statutes against “wokeness” that target public schools, libraries, and places of work—undermine the strides of black progress. “It is the quotidian violence of America’s racial caste system,” writes Lusane, “that poses the most critical threat to communities of color and democracy itself. Ultimately, it is that system, and the narratives that validate it, that must be overthrown.” It is in the service of that goal that Lusane also carefully, and contemplatively, contextualizes Tubman’s work and legacy as foundational to a tradition of resistance, including the fierce battle against the regressive anti-black racism of this moment. It is also in service of that goal that he advocates we make the conscious “inherently prejudicial” choice to see an illiterate, handicapped, self-emancipated, insurgent black woman for the thoroughly original American icon—and hero—she is.

This, Lusane notes, is exactly why figures such as Harriet Tubman and Maya Angelou, for all the valid concerns over empty efforts at racial inclusion, should be represented, centered, honored, and celebrated. The exclusion of black folks, and particularly black women, from America’s public-facing images of itself—monuments, money, and more—has always been a warped reflection of whiteness wholly incongruous with the actual face of this country. Honest narratives about black women and other folks who continue to fight for what this country purports to stand for, saving America from its own worst and most insidious tendencies, should be in our public spaces and on our shared objects. In tandem with the work of change on the ground and elsewhere, they are the totems of progress.

If representation didn’t matter, the right wouldn’t be fighting so hard to keep it all white.

Twenty Dollars and Change is a future-gazing guide to who we must be to become who we claim to be. And, as Lusane notes, we will only get there by changing, inside and out.

Foreword by Kali Holloway excerpted from Twenty Dollars and Change by Clarence Lusane, copyright 2022 Clarence Lusane, published and reprinted with permission of City Lights Books.


November 2022