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.
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.