US Secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lew, announced today that Union spy and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman will replace former US president Andrew Jackson on the face of the American $20 bill. He also announced that many other civil rights figures and leaders will be added to the backs of the $5 and $10 bills. The decision to place Tubman on the front of the $20 bill instead of the $10 bill comes after some backlash over the recent runaway success of the Broadway musical Hamilton, which follows the story of the first US Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who currently appears on the front of the $10 bill.
Many are praising the Treasurer’s decision to remove Andrew Jackson, a known slaveholder, from the $20 bill, as he was responsible for the notorious “Trail of Tears,” a thinly veiled act of genocide against Native Americans across the Southwestern US in which they were forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands by the US Army and herded into the reservations that still exist to this day. Replacing the individual responsible for the deaths of over 10,000 Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, Muscogee, and Chickasaw people during that removal with a figure of freedom and hope for another forcibly displaced, oppressed people – particularly a former slave and a woman of color – is something to be applauded.
There is some controversy, however (aside from the sadly inevitable idiots), concerning the irony of placing a woman who was once considered currency herself onto the very currency she was bought with. The success of American capitalism was built on the foundation of slavery; there is a certain uncomfortably sour taste in placing a former slave and abolitionist on the very instrument of the capitalism that drove her enslavement, particularly since institutionalized racism is very much still alive and well through that same capitalist system.
Amid all of these considerations, few people seem to care that Andrew Jackson, the slaveholding orchestrator of a genocide, will not be completely removed from the $20 bill at all; his image will simply be moved to the back of the bill, replacing that of the White House. This move strikes as a rather hypocritical one, considering the changes that the US Treasury is implementing are meant to commemorate great leaders of various civil rights movements, which Jackson was anything but. This distastefulness is further compounded by the fact that no one, not even the US Treasury, knows why Jackson’s portrait was selected for the $20 bill in the first place. Furthermore, rather than replacing the other slaveholding former presidents and founding fathers on the rest of the bills, civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Marian Anderson, and Eleanor Roosevelt will be relegated to the backs of the $10 and $5 bills – the same place that POLITICO says Andrew Jackson is being “kicked to the back of.”
You’re moving in the right direction, US Treasury. Do better.