Kai Wright: Hey everybody. This is Kai. I want to share with you a brief conversation I had recently about those Tubman $20s a lot of folks are getting excited about. You’ll perhaps remember way back during the Obama administration, the Treasury Department decided to replace Andrew Jackson's image on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman's image. The new bills were supposed to roll out in 2020, but then a couple of years ago, the Trump administration said, no, they'd be delaying the release until at least 2026, notably after the end of a hoped-for second Trump term.
This of course sparked general outrage and was seen as yet another insult to Black people from Donald Trump who had long dismissed the idea as political correctness as he called it. Now in one of the Biden administration's first moves, they've announced plans to get those Tubman $20s out in circulation, as soon as possible.
On the surface, you'd maybe think someone like Brittney Cooper would rejoice at this news. Brittney is the author of Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpowers and she's a professor of Africana and Women's and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. She has emerged as one of the most vocal opponents of this whole Tubman $20s plan. She thinks it's actually more of an insult than an honor. She wrote an essay about it in Time. I asked her to talk to me about why.
Kai: So Brittney, hi.
Brittney Cooper: Hi Kai.
Kai: I have dragged you in here because you are raining on people's parade and I want to hear about why.
Brittney: Oh, no!
Kai: [chuckles] Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, this is something a lot of people were really excited about back in the Obama era. When Trump's administration took it away, it felt like an insult to a lot of people.
Kai: Biden is now coming back and you're not so sure. I will just say right out front, I am of two minds on this. Let's just start with the simple why you actually feel like it's an insult to Harriet Tubman.
Brittney: It absolutely feels like an insult. Let's think about Harriet Tubman's life. This is a Black woman who is enslaved and who we primarily know because she is an abolitionist and because she escapes from slavery and then goes back on dozens of trips to free hundreds of other enslaved people. Then later, during the Civil War, she becomes a spy for the Union Army down in South Carolina. She spies on Confederate camps, reports back, and helps the Union to have considerable victories in South Carolina.
She risked limb life and fortune, endured untold amounts of violence as an enslaved person in order to escape from a system that said that her only value was the financial and economic value and the labor value that she brought to her plantation owner. Her commitment to resisting that and not just for herself, but for as many people as she possibly could, to risk going back over and over and over again, to say, "I don't want anybody beset by the system." Then look, are we ready to have a reckoning in our country with the way that our symbols are deeply rooted in problematic narratives.
Money is the most notorious of them all. I don't know that Harriet Tubman's goal in her life was to be among places of honor with white men who helped to create and shore up the very institutions that harmed her life.
Kai: To be even put a fine point on it, is there a way to understand Harriet Tubman's work as anti-capitalist?
Brittney: Harriet Tubman was not known for weighing in on debates about the nature of US capital and currency. We don't need that kind of argument from her, her life is argument enough. Let's think about also what slavery meant in this country. If you were an enslaved person, then if your owner had a debt, literally they could hand your bodies over to the person that they had the debt with as a form of payment. Black bodies were a form of payment during slavery. They were also used as collateral for insurance.
When someone says to me that what they want to do is take an enslaved person and slap them on the sort of signature US dollar, or a $20 bill, US money, US currency, that to me reinforces a history of Black bodies as capital. That argument is the thing that has led to untold amounts of Black suffering.
Kai: All right, so there's a deeper conversation here about representational politics in general, really that you're getting at. I just want to tease out how you think about that and how we should think about that. Because it isn't it also true that whatever may have been the case in terms of Harriet Tubman's relationship to these capitalist symbols and whatever these capitalist symbols do exist as right now, isn't it a potential way to change the narrative by indeed replacing a Jackson with a Tubman on something like a $20 bill?
Brittney: I think that we should not put a person on the $20 bill.
Kai: In the first place.
Brittney: I understand that many people think, well, right, since Andrew Jackson was an enslaver, then you're doing justice by replacing him with an enslaved person. You are not doing justice to the enslaved person by using their symbol to say that we no longer treat Black people as though their labor is the only thing that matters in this country.
In the middle of a pandemic where we know that our essential workers or our laborers are overrepresented as Black women, we are still treating Black women as commodities who produce labor and capital for the republic and who are not worthy of protection. The current design still has a bust of Andrew Jackson on the back of the dollar.
Kai: That's the piece that I just, I can't, the piece where they keep him on the back of the bill. That is the tell that we are not really making progress here. [laughs]
Brittney: I can hear people who say, “Well, by putting her face on the $20 bill, we create a context for understanding that US wealth is tethered to Black bodies.” That's the only version of this argument that I'm willing to hear, but that isn't the version of the official narrative that is actually coming out about this. It's just a diversity narrative. We've had a bunch of white men. Those white men are problematic, so we should just pick some Black people who we know a bit about and put them on money.
Harriet Tubman's life and legacy becomes the backdrop upon which we want to float a narrative of ourselves as diverse and inclusive. That becomes the problem, that we are using her to signal something about ourselves that A, is not true, and B, that is not consistent with the life that she fought for, which was one that attempted to disconnect the relationship of Black people's lives and bodies to money and capital.
Kai: To go beyond this narrow example by the questions of like Black people or Indigenous people are women stepping into these places in these roles of power for this society, whether it's vice-president or corporate jobs or whatever, isn't that at least an opportunity to change the narrative towards something different?
Brittney: Let me say two things about that. One is all forms of representation are not equal. One of the problems that we've had on the left and that has that led to so much infighting even during the election season was for those of us who said it actually matters to have a woman in the presidency, or the vice presidency, or a Black woman in those roles, which is something I believe in. I believe that we should have gender representation and ultimately gender parity in those roles.
The reason that those roles matter is because they are decision-making roles. They're not just symbols that can be co-opted for a narrative of diversity. Those are roles where women and Black women get to actually speak, get to push you back, get to determine the agenda, get to have some power to say what is going to happen or not going to happen. When we're talking about representation, I am stridently against forms of representation that are about merely adding a pop of color to your otherwise white world. I am about forms of representation that create the context for people to challenge power. I am want to see how Tubman would do this.
Here's the other thing. Would anyone ever think to themselves, the way we should honor Martin Luther King is to put him on a $20 bill? If somebody said it, there would be outrage from all segments of Black communities. Folks would very quickly say, "Dr. King fought the poor people's campaign. He was a preacher. He stood for love. He didn't stand for capitalism." Folks would immediately understand if I were talking about a famous Black man like Dr. King why it would be inappropriate to slap his face on money to say that we have made it out. Yet somehow, people are being obtuse about this Black woman who actually lived through the condition of slavery and had her body treated as a form of money.
Kai: As you write in your essay in Time, you call it a stunning failure of imagination, and so I do hear that.
Brittney: I wrote a whole book called Beyond Respectability that is about a group of women called race women. These were Black women who gave their lives to build structures for Black folks to live and thrive. Certainly, they saw themselves in the tradition of Harriet Tubman- -and I see myself in the tradition of Harriet Tubman as somebody who was a fierce defender and lover of Black people, of our right to freedom, of our right to the best kinds of representation, the most useful forms of power that actually help our people.
I see myself as a Black feminist who says, "You don't get to slap Black women's faces and lives and bodies and labor on the map of a nation that continues to stridently not care for us, and then come to us and be self-congratulatory, and tell us that we should celebrate you because you did something that was merely symbolic." I don't accept that and I don't think that Harriet Tubman would accept it either.
Now, I don't know if Mother Tubman would say that she wanted a place of honor on money. These things are complicated and I could imagine a world where she would accept it but I can't imagine a world where she would accept it without it also being about an investment of money in Black communities. This is a person who didn't accept individual freedom as her narrative, but said, "It has to be a collective project, and I'm willing to risk my life for it." Then said, "And, I'm willing to risk my life for the nation to be better.”
This is not a woman who was given to symbol and frequently was known to challenge white folks around their own penchant for self-congratulation. I certainly like symbols. I'm not telling you even to complicate this a bit on my end, that I'm not going to collect some Tubmans.
Brittney: If she's on a $20, give me my damn $20s. I'm happy about that. I will collect them. I will recognize it as historically significant that a Black woman is on US money. But as a scholar, and an activist, and a person who is committed to this work, I would be irresponsible if I just showed up to the celebration without saying this tender, legal tender and this ability to see Black folks as legal tender is the cause of most of our suffering and we should disrupt and not participate in that narrative with such ease and such acquiescence.
Kai: Having said all that, let's say we had all the policy wins in the world, let's say we got the investments and all of that, how would you then imagine, if you were going to come up with a symbol to honor Harriet Tubman, and it went alongside actual policy investment, what could you imagine?
Brittney: To the extent that Tubman was an abolitionist, I think she should be in the conversation about prison abolition, a conversation that I'm working through and thinking about. I would want to see her being the ancestral guide for a set of packages of legislation. I think there can be physical memorials to her. I think that there can be statues to her and to the folks who ran with her. I think we could have a Tubman holiday. We love to celebrate our war heroes in this country, why not a Tubman holiday?
What I'm saying is, she can be part of our symbolic national imagining, I think that that is important. She just can't only be a symbol. The thing that bothers me about this is it reduces hurts the level of symbol. We are living through the aftermath of what it has meant to reduce Dr. King to a symbol, to not think about and attend to his radical freedom project and to only reduce him to the man with a dream. This is a thing that we do to Black freedom fighters, is we make them palatable to the masses in the name of saying, well, it's better for people to know their name. As a scholar of this, I think it's not just enough for us to know their names.
We don't just know Abraham Lincoln's name. We know something about what he did for the nation and we revere that as a nation whether we should or we should not. I think that Tubman is worthy of all of it. I don't think that the project of just putting her face on money-- One I don't believe that it's going to then lead to something more substantive because having lived here my entire life, what I know is that once we complete the circuit of the symbol, as a country, we think that that is progress.
Then we show up and are very shocked when we find out that Black women are still dying disproportionately and disproportionately lack wealth, all of the things I outlined in my piece at Time. I'm saying that when we're going to honor our historical figures, the forms of honorifics that we choose should bear some fealty to the life of the people that we're trying to honor.
Kai, what I'm saying in this moment of political reimagination is Black women deserve more.
Kai: Well, we could have started and finished there, Black women deserve more.
Kai: Thank you Brittney for challenging us to think more deeply about this stuff.
Brittney: Yes. My pleasure, Kai.
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