In some ways, Turner sees Tubman’s placement on the bill as a testament to the heroine’s lifelong battle to liberate black Americans from slavery and white supremacy. On the other hand, she says there is a curious irony in selecting Tubman, who according to the laws of her time was a thief who stole enslaved black people and led them to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Hers was a life spent dealing blows to the very economic structure that will bear her face on its currency.
“That’s quite a symbol,” said Turner, “that people in this country who do not respect or feel like African-American lives should be treated as equal have to see her face every time on this $20.”
Many Americans were thrilled when Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced the Tubman news on Wednesday: Andrew Jackson, a slave owner who oversaw the Trail of Tears, was being ousted from the $20 and replaced by a black female freedom fighter. But not all black Americans are celebrating. Many aren’t pleased that Jackson’s face will still be featured on the flip side of the bill in some capacity. (In a way, he’ll still be on her back.) Other critics point out that money is the currency of capitalism, and capitalism bred slavery—an institution from which black people have received no compensation.
“What is it that you want her to represent for you?” Yaba Blay, the Dan Blue Endowed Chair of Political Science at North Carolina Central University, said of Treasury officials who made the decision. “What is it that you think that Harriet Tubman represents by putting her on your currency, knowing what your institution represents?”
Zoe Rufenblanchette, a woman Fusion interviewed in New York City, was more pointed: “I don’t think a woman such as Harriet Tubman who did so much for the black community and is such a strong figure should be put on something as disgusting as money.”
Several black activists and scholars interviewed for this story agree that such grievances expressed over the Tubman $20 are warranted—but they also believe the conversation deserves more nuanced exploration. For all of the fanfare over a black woman of Tubman’s stature being placed on U.S. currency, black women continue to endure disproportionate economic disparities and low representation in political office.
All of this is true despite the fact that black women are the country’s most enthusiastic electorate. The Democratic Party enjoys their unparalleled support. In 2008 and 2012, they were the most active voters of any demographic. A recent study reveals that black female university students are the most active voters at the collegiate level. So far, black women are presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s biggest supporters; during the last primary in New York, for example, 79 percent of them cast their ballots for Clinton, according to exit polling.
Despite all of the support black women show the Democratic Party at the ballot box, very few sit in positions of power at any level of elected government.
According to Higher Heights, a nonprofit organization devoted to supporting black women pursuing political office, only 35 black women from 15 states have served in U.S. Congress and only 10 have served in executive-level positions in nine states. With the exception of Carol Elizabeth Moseley Braun, no black woman has ever served in the U.S. Senate.
This is the major contradiction exposed by Tubman being placed on U.S. currency: there are few black women powerful enough to determine how America actually spends it.
“Something explosive has to happen in American politics to make the two-party political system realize just how important black women voters are,” said Leah Wright Rigueur, assistant professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. “You know it. I know it. Politicians claim to know it, but they do a lot of superficial gestures towards it.”
Elle Hearns, who serves as the Network Organization for Black Lives Matter, agrees, saying that regardless of who ends up winning the White House, black women will have to continue forcing the political power structure to address their issues, particularly when it comes to income inequality.
“There has to be a prioritization of black women in economic discussions,” said Hearns. “There isn’t a real focus on the economic disparities of black people or black families, and specifically, black women who are the majority head of households. In order to do that, it has to be done with a true conversation about capitalism and how our relationship with it destroys the opportunities for black women and black femmes to advance in a way that is economically sound. I don’t think that Harriet Tubman’s face on a $20 and sharing that with an endorser of slavery is going to be the model that amplifies that conversation.”
Hearns has a point. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, black women earn a median wage of $33,533. White women, by comparison, earn $55,457, a difference of $21,937 each year.
When I asked Charlene A. Carruthers, national director of Black Youth Project 100, what kinds of policies the Democratic Party could rally behind in support of black women, she pointed to reparations, which directly ties to the legacy of slavery Tubman fought.
“What I would like to see is a firm commitment to reparations,” she said. “[Candidates] should be in full support of reparations because the Party would not hold the power it does without black women.”
Carruthers’ call for reparations goes to the very core of her discontent of Tubman being placed on the $20. America has been able to prosper off several hundred years of slavery, and black America has gotten nothing in return. (Ta-Nehisi Coates’ landmark essay, “The Case for Reparations” is the most comprehensive argument in favor of reparations to date.)
However, leading presidential candidates aren’t interested in pursuing reparations.
Sanders told Fusion earlier this year during the Brown and Black Forum that he wouldn’t support reparations because it would be too “divisive” and “its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil.” Clinton was asked the same question, but she didn’t respond directly. She called for investment in underprivileged communities instead.
This is the ultimate hypocrisy of American politics. Many Americans will celebrate the face of a former female slave on American currency, but the reality remains that no black American will see one cent of compensation tied to the legacy of slavery that continues to disenfranchise them to this very day.
As Turner sees it, the best scenario that can come out of Tubman being on the $20 is that black women will soon have a reminder in their wallets of how little this country values them and that they will have to force the system to compensate them equally for their labor.
“I’m hoping that this symbolic gesture catapults us, so that every time we see her face on a $20 that we are reminded that the struggle is real and that we must continue to push for equality and justice for all,” Turner said, “even if we have to put something on the line for it. Because that’s exactly what Harriet Tubman did.”
Terrell Jermaine Starr is National Political Correspondent for Fusion. You can follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.