Wherefore Art Thou Harriet

Apr 21, 2016
This Week in Feminism

Written by Emma Glassman-Hughes

Last year, Jack Lew of the U.S. Treasury asked the American people to propose a female historical figure to be the new face of the $10 bill (you may recall a certain Assley was in the running). He received a surprising amount of backlash from folks who found it odd that the Treasury was redesigning the 10--a bill already outfitted with a perfectly decent U.S. historical icon--and not the 20--a bill that features a less-than-savory character from some of the darkest times in U.S. history. Lew decided to honor these complaints, and he drafted a new plan to be executed in full by the year 2030. It is even better knowing who’s taking Jackson’s spot on the front of the $20: the goddess of the Underground Railroad, Ms. Harriet Tubman. But then we realized, there are a lot of people who are going like, “Heck yeah!! Wait... Harriet Lew Who??” right now, and need a little brushing up on why Harriet Tubman is the ultimate figure for the $20. Or the $50. Or a face tattoo.

So, yeah. Now that her image is set to become a part of everyday life here in the U.S., I’m thinkin’ we should probably all know a thing or two about the Underground Railroad conductress (aside from our learnings from 7th grade history class.) Here are some things to know about Harriet Tubman before she graces our homes and our wallets with her eternal kindness, bravery and sweet, subtle lil smile:

  1. She was born into slavery as Araminta Ross (nicknamed Minty, of course) in either 1819 or 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland; BUT she then changed her named to Harriet, after her mother, as a sign of defiance in her 20s.
  2. She married John Tubman, a free black man, when she was roughly 24 and took on his last name.
  3. She was technically disabled because she had narcolepsy due to a severe head injury sustained at age 12, and she believed her thick, uncombed, magical hair was what saved her life in this accident.
  4. She never had kids of her own.
  5. She was commonly referred to as the “Moses” of her people, and she used to sing “Go Down Moses” to communicate her comings and goings in secret.
  6. She was a spy (!!!) and nurse and possible soldier in the Civil War.
  7. She was a talented public speaker and was known in her later years as an early Suffragist on the frontlines of demanding a woman’s right to vote.
  8. She was the first keynote speaker at the first meeting of the National Federation of Afro-African Women in 1896.
  9. In 1913, she died of pneumonia and was buried in the Fort Hill Cemetery with military honors.

And, because he was kind of the worst, here’s everything you need to know about Andrew Jackson--who is being demoted to the back of the $20--and why it sucked that he was the face of the $20 bill for so long: 

  1. He fought against “crony capitalism” and opposed the creation of a central bank.
  2. As president, he enforced the Trail of Tears AKA the forceful removal of thousands of  Native Americans, namely Cherokees, in the deep South.
  3. He owned hundreds of slaves and hoped to acquire more slave plantations in the land gained from the Trail of Tears.
  4. That’s about it. He gets a shorter list because he was the worst.

So, Harriet, let me count the ways that we need you today and everyday, guiding our wallets and our consciences...

At a time when Snapchat thinks it’s ok to have a filter of blackface on 4/20--a holiday that celebrates the consumption of marijuana for which so much black youth is suffering disproportionately--we need you, Harriet.

At a time when presidential candidates threaten to deport entire races of people for asinine reasons, we need you Harriet.

At a time when black girls get thrown across classrooms and black women die in police custody simply for raising their voices or neglecting to use a turn signal or sometimes not saying anything at all, we need you Harriet.

At a time when the Melissa Harris-Perry’s are proving themselves time and time again to be reliable, talented professionals but are still silenced and marginalized at work, we need you Harriet.

At a time when white boys are threatening knives in classroom discussions about racism in the workplace affecting black women, we need you Harriet.

She was integral to the defeat of slavery in the 19th century, and I believe she’ll be integral to the defeat of racism in the 21st century (or at least the opposition to it). Let’s get that paper, y’all.

**Let's not forget: There are arguments made that putting Harriet on the $20--somewhat mainstreaming her--will undermine her legacy of fighting against hegemonic structures. Some very interesting and thoughtful points have been made. I encourage y’all to read those, too, and decide for yourselves whether or not you’re pumped for a Tubman Twenty!

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