For years now, efforts to redesign the twenty dollar bill with a new face have been on a rollercoaster trajectory. In 2016, former President Barack Obama stated that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the twenty dollar bill by the year 2020. However, due to delays by the Trump administration, that move did not happen in the timely fashion intended. The Biden administration has recently resurfaced the topic, working to accelerate the change that is long overdue.
It’s no question that currency holds incredible power in our country, both economically and socially. Representation is also extremely important, with most of our political, financial, and social power currently centered in the hands of white men. But we cannot talk about money and power without first addressing the discriminatory systems that established this imbalance in the first place. In the US, the enslavement of African people is our historical pillar of systemic inequity, something that, for a long time, we’ve refused to acknowledge in sincerity.
Harriet Tubman, a historically renowned abolitionist, was born in Maryland in the early 1820s, and was enslaved from a young age. After escaping to Philadelphia when she was 27, Tubman returned several times, each time risking her life, to free as many as seventy enslaved people through the Underground Railroad. Undoubtedly, Tubman is a historical hero; she was someone who risked her life to rescue others from an inhumane and barbaric system.
If there is anyone that stands for the exact opposite of everything that Tubman did, it’s the current inhabitant of the twenty dollar bill: Andrew Jackson. Jackson was the seventh president of the United States, well known for the Trail of Tears, the on-foot migration that he forced upon some 15,000 Indigenous Americans. He himself kept several dozen enslaved people, an active opposer of the abolitionist movement.
As a country that is, in many ways, working to undo historic and systemic racial injustice, why would we continue to gleefully display someone whose legacy is everything we are trying to work against? The images on our currency are not a measure of our history, but of our present and our future. While Tubman is a historical figure, she serves as a painful reminder of everything we are still fighting for to this day, while Andrew Jackson serves as a symbol of the country we want to leave behind.
However, it’s important to stray from the idea that a world with Tubman on the twenty dollar bill is a world in which racism no longer exists. Yes, that representation on our currency is incredibly important. But what’s more important is where those bills will be going. Beyond the symbolic gestures, movements to realistically and systemically invoke racial change are imperative.
In order to truly undo the harm that Tubman and African Americans suffered over the past two hundred years and to this day, we must make at least the minimum effort to funnel funding and resources into Black communities. We must acknowledge the gentrification that has pushed out Black businesses and families from Berkeley, and work to break Berkeley High School’s own self-segregation. Tubman portrayed on the twenty dollar bill is an incredibly important, necessary action. But we cannot assume that it’ll solve all of our problems. That? That comes with some much harder work.