Harriet Tubman called the slave south “the next thing to hell,” and yet she went to hell and back again and again to rescue family and friends. She was well prepared because, while enslaved, she harvested wood for her master and learned about wilderness trails, a vital part of the Underground Railroad. Her 90-mile walk to freedom in Delaware led to disappointment: “I had crossed the line. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land.”
Tubman put aside this estrangement, engaged civically, and served the Union during the Civil War as a cook, nurse, scout, and spy. Later she worked to get women and black rights and the vote. For this she was selected by the Obama administration to replace the slaveholder Andrew Jackson on our twenty-dollar bill.
The current administration, however, is balking. Treasury Secretary Munchin says he’s got “a lot more important issues to focus on,” insulting a woman who deserves even more than a place on our money. Some black activists and historians, like Feminista Jones and Daina Rameny Berry, say that stamping Tubman’s likeness on U.S. currency – the currency that bought and sold her as property – is inappropriate. Jones explains, “Harriet Tubman did not fight for capitalism, free trade, or competitive markets. She repeatedly put herself in the line of fire to free people who were treated as currency themselves. She risked her life to ensure that enslaved black people would know they were worth more than the blood money that exchanged hands to buy and sell them.”
So what does representation look like under an oppressive system? Can we give up this symbolic battle with the current administration led by a president who says he’s a “big fan” of Andrew Jackson, hung a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office, and laid a wreath at Andrew Jackson’s historic home?
Perhaps the release this year of the first feature film about Harriet Tubman will generate demand for change more revolutionary than a face on a $20 bill. How about some real economic and political justice? But history can be particularly fickle regarding heroes who don’t leave their own written record – the historians craft the legacy. Time will tell whether the movie, titled Harriet, will be real history or only “reel history.”