The Face On The New Twenty

imageWell, it’s official. After much discussion and poll taking it’s been decided that Harriet Beecher Tubman will be the new face on the twenty dollar bill. A lot of people today don’t know who she is, but to many a hundred years ago she was well-known thanks to the publication of the book about her life, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I’ve never read this book but I did see the fifteen-minute recreation of it by the wives of King Mongkut of Siam in the musical The King and I, so I pretty much had the gist.

Andrew Jackson will be removed from the front of the $20 bill and put on the back. Originally there was the idea put forth of leaving Jackson on the front and putting a famous woman on the back, so as not to too greatly upheave the status quo, but certain groups complained that this was insulting to women and relegated them to second class status. And I agree. That would not have been appropriate, and for the reason just stated. So, the woman will be on the front and the former president will go on the back as that’s not insulting at all, because it’s completely different—“It’s the back of the bill for you, you slave owning bastard! Ha! How do you like them apples!”


Along with the front change, the back of the $5 bill will be getting a makeover and will feature a group portrait of five suffragettes. Apparently in this case having the male Lincoln on the front and the women on the back is not insulting because, well, it’s just not, and that’s all you need to know. But in any case the five women will be Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Alice Paul. This is kind of like the third, fourth, and fifth person in the Yankee’s batting order followed by Bucky Dent 1 and Bucky Dent 2 because I have no idea who Lucretia Mott and Alice Paul are and I’m pretty sure nobody else does either. I think if we’re going to honor great Americans we should at least know who they are. But that’s just me. But focusing on the more famous of the group, we can certainly be inspired by their progressive stand and idealistic perspectives, particularly those of Elizabeth Cady Stanton who—in addressing the soon to be ratified fourteenth amendment where black males would be given the right to vote, once said—

“But now, as the celestial gate to civil rights is slowly moving on its hinges, it becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see Sambo walk into the kingdom first.”


“We educated, virtuous white women are more worthy of the vote.”


“What will our daughters suffer if these degraded black men are allowed to have the rights that would make them even worse than our Saxon fathers?”


“If you will not give the whole loaf of suffrage to the entire people, give it to the most intelligent first. If intelligence, justice, and morality are to have precedence in the government, let the question of the woman be brought up first and that of the negro last.”


“American women of wealth, education, virtue and refinement, if you do not wish the lower orders of Chinese, Africans, Germans, and Irish, with their low ideas of womanhood to make laws for you and your daughters … demand that women too shall be represented in government.”

Well, this is awkward. I can see why Stanton and Tubman won’t be on the same bill. Although, to her credit, Stanton is at least being equi-racist for a change by including my personal ancestors as well as Asians. It’s not like she’s picking on just one group. But this group portrait may need a tweak. Maybe we can have the very tall if insufficiently wide Sojourner Truth stand in front of her. Or we could cut Stanton altogether and insert Ida Wells. We already owe Ida a favor for naming a public housing project in Chicago after her and then tearing it down when it was judged a horrible idea (bad luck there, Ida).

But getting back to Tubman, her story and her heroic deeds are pretty remarkable. What’s especially remarkable is that most of them have never been corroborated by another human being that might have existed at the same time. We do know this, however:

1) She was born a slave in Maryland in 1820, 1815, 1822, and 1825. Upon the death of her owner in 1849 she seized the moment and escaped the slavery of the Deep North by fleeing to the More North (Maryland is in the North, as in not the South—who they were shooting at during the Civil War).

2) She returned to Maryland on about nine or more occasions and helped lead sixty of her friends and relatives, and probably their friends and relatives, to freedom in the More North. One account lists them as “people she couldn’t do without”. This suggests an atavistic impetus, but people are people and help is help whether it’s atavistic or altruistic. Either way this can’t be marginalized. And I’m inclined to think it was more altruistic than not. Point—Tubman.

3) She departed each time on a Saturday night as the Escaped Slave Report didn’t come out in the newspapers until Monday morning. This was a smart approach on her part, but a surprisingly laid back approach to security on the white people’s part. At least they didn’t wait for it to be printed in the Farmers’ Almanac or by 1830 Canada would have been 80% black.

4) She would return to Maryland to lead people northward only during the winter, because black people are so much harder to spot against a snow white background.

5) She once pointed a gun at one of her charges who wanted to go back to the plantation, saying, “You either go on or you die.” I can see both sides here.

6) She supported John Brown and his planned raid and uprising at Harper’s Ferry and helped to recruit a few people. This I’m not too okay with. Neither was Frederick Douglass, who told her so. Not that she listened. And in not listening she gave John Brown the opportunity to shoot the first person he encountered, Hayward Shepherd, who unfortunately happened to be a black person. Why? Because Brown was an idiot.

That aside, so far we have some good points we know to be true. But there are points of contention. To quote:

1) “She became the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War.” (Kate Larson, Bound for the Promised Land, p212).

This would be the raid at Combahee Ferry where Tubman helped set fire to an abandoned plantation that was defended by several hundred chickens.

2) “Tubman was later with Colonel Robert Gould Shaw at the assault on Fort Wagner, reportedly serving him his last meal.” (Larson again).

I take issue with Kate Larson’s cavalier approach to prepositions. If Tubman was with Colonel Shaw then the image conjured is the two of them as equals, leaning over a table together under the light of a single oil lamp, studying a map of the area and planning the next day’s assault. If we exchange with for the more likely preposition and phrase of for, as in worked for Colonel Shaw, then we might suppose that she was there to carry his golf clubs. And since she’s there making dinner for him, I’m leaning in that direction.

3) Tubman was a spy for the North. This is a ubiquitous reference, though I’m hard pressed to find anything that describes her doing anything that might be considered spy-like, such as making goo-goo eyes at Jefferson Davis while lifting his wallet. Also, when did “spy” become the noblest of professions? The last time I checked it was only one step above FBI informant.

4) Tubman was a nurse. Another ubiquitous reference as she volunteered to work in a Union Army hospital, though, “volunteered” needs to be put in quotes. But either way, I would disagree here as making scrambled eggs and collard greens and then handing it to some guy in a bed who has no legs and saying, “You get better now, hear”? doesn’t make you Clara Barton. Or an actual nurse. We can all do the verb, but that doesn’t make us the noun. Biographers would do well to understand the distinction rather than pretending there isn’t one.

There are also a great many statements attributed to Tubman, mostly profound or uplifting, and most said sometime after 1980 which was sixty seven years after she died. And depending on who is reporting these quotes, it’s difficult not to notice that Tubman’s voice, language, and grammar constantly shifts between that of Emily Bronte and Eliza Doolittle. But scholars have taken a critical look at many of these statements and determined that Tubman never said them. For example, while supposedly having said the following, she actually never did:

“I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves” as well as “I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he go in my pajamas I’ll never know.”

I don’t mean to discount Tubman’s accomplishments, it’s just that I’m a little fuzzy on what they actually were. I accept that she helped sixty people to freedom. And that’s a wonderful thing to do. But between 1810 and 1860 a hundred thousand people escaped slavery. And as there is little to no mention of any other hero assisting in these escapes I’m left with the assumption that the other 99,940 just kind of wandered away. And while saving sixty people is impressive, it’s not a singular feat, nor the best in the American Saving League. For example I would note the more recent heroics of Chesley Sullenberger who once famously said to his copilot, “What do you bet me I can land this plane on the Hudson River at exactly an eleven degree angle and not actually get anybody killed?” He saved the lives of 155 people. And in just one afternoon. Then if we move into the International League of People Saving we have, of course, beloved alcoholic Nazi and philandering husband Oskar Schindler. He saved the lives of 1,200 Jews and went financially bankrupt in the process. Even today German people remark on this wonderful feat and say, “He did what now? Oskar? Our Oskar? Oskar Schindler?” So, this thing Harriet did is really good, you know, but I just don’t think it’s Face On The Twenty Dollar Bill worthy. Had she invented indoor plumbing I’d be a little more supportive. As it stands, with the number of people whose lives she helped, I kind of put her at the same level as Oprah.

Supposedly 600,000 people voted in favor having Tubman be the face of the new bill. I don’t know where this survey was conducted but I know it wasn’t in my neighborhood, which is half white and half black, with an Hispanic person and Muslim family. They don’t recall being canvased either. But whoever was part of this large surveyed group, I can only assume that they were picking from a very short list of candidates which along with Tubman also included Calamity Jane and Aunt Jemima—the latter of whom I would actually be okay with being on the front of the bill, in whatever version desirable. I mean really, this is a friendly face that everybody knows. Of course, she’s not going to make you breakfast, because she’s not a servant, but she will help you make your breakfast better. This woman truly epitomizes the spirit of cooperation. And if we’re okay with selecting Harriet Munchausen to be on the bill I see no reason not to select a greatly less divisive person even if she never actually existed.

If you had asked me a year ago who was on the $20 bill, I would have said, “Mm…not Franklin. Or Lincoln. The other guy. The tall one, with all the hair.” Because I never really cared. But if we’re going to have a serious conversation about who should be on the $20 bill, here’s my suggestion: Nobody. There is no one in the history of the world who was ever so wonderful that I should be encouraged to or afforded the opportunity to gaze upon their hallowed image at least a couple times a month. Instead I would suggest we put at the center of the bill that pyramid with the eyeball thing that’s been off to the left on the back of the one dollar bill for the last eighty years. Not only is it cool looking but it symbolizes our escape from Egypt with the aid of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Or if we really want something of significance, why don’t we put the number that’s in the right hand corner right in the middle of the bill, since that’s the only thing of any real importance. Because it’s money we’re talking about. And the only thing anybody really cares about is the number in the corner. Which is fine.

But then again, if you’re really hankering for a positive and uplifting image to go in the center, I think the smiley face would be just fine. And we’ll get rid of “In God We Trust” and put there instead “Have A Nice Day.” Yeah, I’m good with that.

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