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The Cost of Putting Harriet Tubman on American Money

I regret to inform you that the politicians are at it again

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Once again they’re talking about putting Harriet Tubman on money. What sense does this make? What purpose? Can we not think of a better way to honor someone’s legacy, someone’s work, someone’s life than to place her on money?

How about if we collectively and unceasingly worked toward the liberation of Harriet Tubman’s daughters and sons, her progeny? To do that would mean a dismantling of the systems that bond us to begin with. A dismantling of white supremacy for one — not just a verbal rebuke of it, but a floor-to-ceiling teardown. To do that would mean to dismantle the systems that trapped Harriet Tubman in bondage to begin with: an obsessive adherence to profit so deep that it justifies enslaving, beating, dehumanizing, and killing a people simply to increase margins. Prioritizing money over community, family, home. Treating nothing as sacred except wealth.

To work toward the liberation of Harriet Tubman’s afterbearers would mean reparations. Not just for the centuries of stolen labor, but for the centuries of economic disadvantage, redlining, mob violence, poll taxes, lynchings, white supremacy, and racism in schools, government, all institutions. Reparations for crack, for COINTELPRO, for mass incarceration.

To work toward the liberation of Harriet Tubman’s afterbearers would mean prioritizing, above all, the liberation of Black women, it would mean treating Black Feminism as, to quote the Combahee River Collective’s 1977 statement “the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face.”

“hm. bullshit.” — Harriet Tubman, probably

To work toward the liberation of Harriet Tubman’s afterbearers would mean that everyone had health care, that no one had to choose between raising their children or working for rent money, between physical safety or food on the table. It would mean that no Black person would have to make peace with the possibility that they may be killed while unarmed, by the police forces we employ with our tax money. It would mean that Black people could be free to gather, to be loud, to have joy and safety without constantly having to navigate the insecurity and fears of White people and their personal police force. It would mean an end to gerrymandering, to political disenfranchisement; it would mean a democracy that doesn’t just go far enough to uphold profit, but enough to uphold the lives of the people it has always forgotten.

How can there be tent cities in a land that honors Harriet Tubman’s legacy?

How can 400,000 people die from an entirely preventable infection, owing largely to the fact that we don’t collectively care enough about their lives to change ours temporarily, owing to the fact that we charge people money for food, clothing, and shelter, for health care, for the right to live? How can Black and Latinx Americans be dying at triple the rate from this preventable infection?

How can you put the face of Harriet Tubman — a woman who risked her entire life to liberate people from the very system we live under, a system of dehumanization — on the money we still use to charge people for the things they need to literally survive?

The point, of course, isn’t that she shouldn’t be honored. It’s that representation is not respect. It is not care. It is simply an icon, a shortcut, a two-dimensional symbol that says, “We are not able to truly live by these principles, but let us at least signal that it would feel good if we were.”

Tubman made a reported 13 trips by foot back and forth from slave territory to free territory, leading some 80 people through to freedom, some as far as Canada. She risked her entire life for the liberation of others. What will the government risk for the liberation of ours?

@nytmag |ny’er | gq,etc | #FindingFred| Memoir @mcdbooks 2021 | pro-black, pro-queer everything | he/him |The Sixth Man| i’m cut in half pretty bad

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