“Mah People Mus’ Go Free.”

Have you ever heard of Mary Pattison Brodess? Probably not. The only reason anyone ever heard of her today is because she happened to have owned one of the greatest expressions of the often-illusive American spirit ever to take a breath on our shores. Brodess owned, just like she might have owned a horse or a plow or a plot of land, a little woman born with the name Araminta Ross, but who we know as Harriet Tubman.

Harriet Tubman, circa 1900. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)When I first heard that Tubman, finally, would replace the reprehensible Andrew Jackson on the front of the ubiquitous $20 bill (Jackson will, regrettably, remain on the back of the bill for some strange reason), the first thing I thought about were all the cruel and not-so-cruel slave owners, the sadistic and not-so-sadistic masters, and the always greedy slave catchers who are a part of our nation’s history, all of whom once thought that, as white people of privilege, the Harriet Tubmans were theirs to abuse, to work, to trade, to buy and sell like cattle and then be forgotten. I thought about how her face—Harriet Tubman’s face—will stare at all of us as we do our own buying and selling today. If we ever need a reason to avoid transitioning to a cashless society, it would be because that would mean her face would disappear with the currency.

I won’t detail Tubman’s remarkable life here. There are plenty of places you can go to read about her, if you have forgotten her story of sadness and triumph, her heroism, her devotion to liberty for herself and other slaves she helped rescue through the Underground Railroad. As I suggested, her spirit was a true American spirit, an odd thing for someone whose family roots were in Africa.  Her courageous and freedom-loving soul represented that soul of America that our slave-owning Founders described on paper, but so often failed to represent themselves.

I know the Obama administration has accomplished a lot since 2009, but this move by Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has to rank way up there. Next to Barack Hussein Obama’s inauguration as our nation’s first African-American president, I can’t think of anything so pregnant with symbolism, so fitting as a reminder of who we have been and who we are today. Someday, somewhere, Mr. Obama will take out a Tubman Twenty, look at it, and smile. He will know that for years to come a former slave woman will stare into the eyes of all Americans, including those white Americans who have long resented our black president because his presidency itself has symbolized not just the partial realization of a long-incubating American idealism, but the waning of white privilege, privilege that began with slavery, with the idea that Harriet Tubman had no rights that white people were bound to respect.

7 Comments

  1. King Beauregard

     /  April 20, 2016

    I admit, this change makes me feel a little uncomfortable, as in it is territory that this white man never imagined we’d see. It’s not just that we’ll have a black woman on currency, but a black woman who stands as witness against the crimes of white America. She can’t be neutered into an unthreatening advocate for peace like MLK Jr. She can’t be reframed as a mere intellectual like Frederick Douglass. This is a woman who is famous for being a slave and fighting against slavery, period.

    Money speaks to what we value. We put “In God We Trust” on our money 60 years ago. Now we’re going to elevate a woman who stands in judgment of our society, and is a reminder to always do better.

    This is new territory, and it makes me feel a little unsteady. Good.

    Like

    • Well said and poignant, KB.

      Your response gives me a chance to post Douglas’ letter to Tubman that I almost included in this piece:

      Dear Harriet: I am glad to know that the story of your eventful life has been written by a kind lady, and that the same is soon to be published. You ask for what you do not need when you call upon me for a word of commendation. I need such words from you far more than you can need them from me, especially where your superior labors and devotion to the cause of the lately enslaved of our land are known as I know them. The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day – you in the night. I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes of being approved by the multitude, while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred, and foot-sore bondmen and women, whom you have led out of the house of bondage, and whose heartfelt, “God bless you,” has been your only reward. The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown – of sacred memory – I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have. Much that you have done would seem improbable to those who do not know you as I know you. It is to me a great pleasure and a great privilege to bear testimony for your character and your works, and to say to those to whom you may come, that I regard you in every way truthful and trustworthy.

      Your friend,

      Frederick Douglass.

      If this letter, and the line, “The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism,” doesn’t make you tear up a little bit, then I don’t know what would.

      Thanks again,

      Duane

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Culture is not a thing easily changed, but it is the force behind policy. Regardless of political speeches, culture is what it is and it moves mountains. Culture is behind America’s gun madness, it was behind black codes, Jim Crowe, and segregation. It is the force behind Trump’s saber-rattling slogan, “Make America Great Again”. Adding God to government, as in pledges and courthouse monuments, was an unconstitutional, stimulus to culture. Tubman’s face will be a strong force of what what must be remembered of our history. Like putting the rudder over five degrees on a mighty oil tanker, it will have a lasting effect. I know what the bigots are thinking in their back rooms, but this will not easily be undone. Good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, culture can be a “force behind policy.” But policy can also be a force behind culture. I think of the policies, in the 1960s, that first called attention to the dangers of cigarette smoking, eventually leading to labeling the product as “dangerous to your health.”  Here shows at least a correlation between those policies and the decline in smoking:

      That labeling of cigarettes was sort of like your analogy of “putting the rudder over five degrees on a mighty oil tanker.” Government policy can do much good, if government is in the right hands. And President Obama’s administration, doing symbolic things like making the Tubman Twenty, shows it is in the right hands. Let’s hope Drumpf’s tiny hands don’t get ahold of it.

      Duane

      Like

  3. The only improvement I can see is for a little photoshopping that shows Ms. Tubman giving us the finger

    Like

%d bloggers like this: