When talk of putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 dollar bill surfaced, initially, I was happy. I was excited. For one because I believe that Harriet Tubman is the greatest hero in the history of the United States. Also, because of the prospect of no longer having to see Andrew Jackson’s face.
But after the initial excitement, I began to wonder if Ms. Tubman’s face on legal tender is an honor, particularly when said tender was used in transactions where Black people, like Harriet Tubman, were the property of sale?
What Ms. Tubman did was free Black people within a society where Black labor had a price while Black life was deemed worthless; as worthless as gesturing to place Black women on currency. First it was Harriet Tubman…
Now it is Maya Angelou, who has become the first Black woman to appear on the quarter.
Don’t get me wrong, seeing a Black face on legal tender is a welcomed sight to a degree. When in the Bahamas, for example, it was a pleasure to see Black faces on their legal tender. But Black faces on their tender aren’t without policies to address the needs of Black people, despite any continuous working through their colonial past.
Here, however, it’s an empty gesture because putting Black women on legal tender doesn’t turn racist policies into antiracist ones. Nor does it embolden the complicit silent to speak.
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These acts or gestures turn Black activism for justice into nothing more than trophies on display in museums where the white gaze can ogle them with bewilderment and wonder as to why Black people desired for their humanity to be honored.
These certainly won’t bring Congress any closer to passing voting rights legislation that Joe Biden has finally turned his attention to. The same is true for making Juneteenth a national holiday (although it should be), making “Lift Every Voice and Sing” a national song or painting “Black Lives Matter” on city streets. It might make some white people mad, but it doesn’t address police brutality, gerrymandering or the school-to-prison pipeline.
But politicians, even Black ones, continue to push for and pass these empty gestures to placate Black people.
To be clear, it’s not a bad thing to remove George Washington from any legal tender, just like removing Andrew Jackson is welcomed. These were horrible men who enslaved Africans and oversaw the murders of indigenous people in the name of manifest destiny. But Ms. Angelou on the quarter or Ms. Tubman on the $20 bill is not the change we need.
Black people need changes in public policy that eradicate white supremacy.
We need voting rights legislation to undo Shelby v. Holder. We need public policy protections against police brutality to protect the humanity of Black life. We need laws that demand racism, white supremacy and racial capitalism are taught in schools so that the next generation does not repeat the sins of the past.
We also need politicians, especially Black politicians, to stop peddling these piecemeal gestures and calling it change. We need those we elect, no matter their color, to fight on our behalf to get us the actual legislation that we need.
A Black face on capitalism won’t heal America and it certainly won’t help Black people. Representation can only take you so far and only mean but so much. Public policy, however, can either lead on the stairway to heaven or to the highway to hell. Politicians must do the work of the former instead of remaining complicit concerning America’s drifting towards the latter.
Rann Miller is the director of anti-bias and DEI initiatives as well as a high school social studies teacher for a school district located in Southern New Jersey. He’s also a freelance writer and founder of the Urban Education Mixtape, supporting urban educators and parents of students in urban schools. You can follow him on Twitter @UrbanEdDJ .
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