What Does It Mean for America to Put Harriet Tubman on the $20 Bill?

A roundtable discussion on women, people of color, and the country’s newest currency

Library of Congress

Ah, the irony of American history. The Treasury Department is planning to remove Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill and replace him with Harriet Tubman. Jackson was a slaveholder who infamously sent thousands of Cherokee Indians to their death along the Trail of Tears. Tubman was a slave who escaped and served as a spy for the Union during the Civil War, freeing other slaves using the Underground Railroad. The enslaver has been replaced by the slave, and the United States currency library just got one tick less male. To be fair, that was the only way it could go: The only women currently featured on national currency are Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea, who grace the nearly useless $1 coin.

Irony, for sure. But is this really the justice advocates were hoping for? Four of our writers and editors discuss below.

Adrienne LaFrance: I am very happy about having a black woman on some money. (And several other women, in fact! Harriet Tubman will be the portrait on the front of the new $20 bill. The back of the $10 bill will feature Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Alice Paul; and the back of the $5 bill will feature Marian Anderson, and Eleanor Roosevelt.) I actually had a stronger reaction to the news than I expected. I immediately texted my parents and emailed my sister. There were many exclamation points involved. So, I think it’s great news.

Shauna Miller: I had the same initial reaction as Adrienne. It is undeniably a major deal for a person of color to be on the face of something Americans pass through their hands every day. It’s just as major to have a woman occupying that space. I was pretty shocked it happened, to be honest. But I did like this counter-point, from the writer Feminsta Jones. I've been thinking a lot about money a lot lately: Who has it, where it goes, what it supports, the ways in which it is still used to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and incarceration of people of color, particularly black people.

So I very quickly shifted into that headspace—similar to Jones’s essay—regarding Tubman being on the $20. Here is a woman who was born into an America who treated her as a salable item. Here is a woman who fought that with everything she had. How would she feel about being the new face of inclusive capitalist imagery? No one can say. But I think I am falling into the trap of my own white privilege with so much cynicism. There is a black woman on the $20 bill! Harriet Tubman is on the $20 bill! It's incredibly bold to put a woman who was born an enslaved American on the twenty. Pretty much no other person better represents the America that rejected slavery. Every time her face is seen, there will be a reminder of very old wounds, and an opportunity for discussions on race and gender Americans need to have. And every time her face is seen, the message gets sent that America is making moves to face its history of violent discrimination against people of color and women. It's meaningful and powerful for all of these reasons. But because of the America we live in now, it’s not entirely comfortable for me. Which is good, because white people especially should not be right now.

LaFrance: I appreciate how deeply you’re thinking about the implications of the decision. But should we really only keep white men featured on American currency since they’re the most authentic representation of a flawed system? To me, even if putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill is just symbolism—which obviously doesn’t begin to address actual, systematic injustices—it’s still a meaningful step forward.

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams: I see the inherent complexities here, but I can accept this as a Hallmark card from the establishment, which will never have the proper tools or venues for acknowledging—let alone correcting—the sedimentary layers of harm and damage done to people of color  in this country’s history. For blacks, Native Americans, and descendants of the original Mexican states (just to choose three groups) that now make up most of the West and Southwest, some level of restitution—via free higher education through multiple generations, grants for purchasing affordable housing units, training and re-equipping folks in dying industries—might be a start. But, none of it will balance the historical scale. The best we can expect is a gradual leveling of the disproportionality with which some succeed over time while others stagnate. As the spike in “Who is Harriet Tubman?”Google searches proves, most people will not have the depth of knowledge about her to contextualize her worth and work in a meaningful way. But, in their daily lives as they pick up groceries, pay for gas, buy flowers, and give their kids an allowance, they can be reminded of one representative black woman’s work on behalf of the suppliers of the free labor that set in motion the economic machine we now benefit from. Most importantly, as has been proven in millions of ways with our first black First Family, seeing an image that reflects who we are to some degree is fortifying for the soul and reassuring for the intellect. I want my two sons, nieces, and nephews to grow up in a world where such sights are so common as to be taken for granted.

Gillian White: I respect and understand Jones’s point, that perhaps this choice to have her image placed on national currency wouldn't have been in line with Tubman’s views, but I also don’t think that should necessarily stop it from happening. This, to me, is as much about recognizing a set of people as it is the specific person whose face is being used. There is, as you all have mentioned, something incredibly important about being represented and being seen. The luxury that so many white people take for granted is seeing people who look like them in every facet of life, from politics to economics to entertainment. This doesn’t exist for people of color. It matters to me that people will now see the face of a former slave who helped build and define this nation as often as they see the faces of white men like George Washington and (cringe) Andrew Jackson.

The gesture is far from perfect. Juleyka mentioned that this isn’t a country that has the proper tools to even beginning to fully reckon with the damages and disregard it has had for people of color and I couldn’t agree more. And that means that proposals and solutions are going to be imperfect and contentious. I prefer a version of change that involves continually trying to honor the history of people of color in this nation, even if it’s incremental, and even if it’s messy. Unless the government is suddenly considering cutting a check to a bunch of different brown folks, there aren’t many existing options for honoring and acknowledging people of color that aren’t going to be, in some way, deeply flawed. But at least we are finally having a conversation about it.