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“An Acknowledgment Of Where We’ve Been”: Tubman’s Twenty Moves Us Closer To A More Perfect Union

The journey toward a more perfect union was quickened with the announcement that Harriet Tubman, abolitionist, Union spy and activist for women’s suffrage, will grace the front of the $20 bill. The Tubman twenty will be unveiled in 2020, timed to honor the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.

She will be the first woman on U.S. paper currency in more than a century and the first black American ever. That a black woman who was born a slave will be given such a prominent commemoration is a testament to American exceptionalism, a reminder of the nation’s slow and erratic but continuing march toward a more just version of itself.

Not all Americans see it that way, of course. Some are already grumbling about the demotion of Andrew Jackson, the nation’s seventh president, to the back of the bill. (Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren has called the change “stupid.”) Others insist that the Treasury has simply caved to an ill-conceived political correctness. (Donald Trump claims that’s the case.) A few will venture commentary that has no place in polite society.

Indeed, the announcement of a revamped and more-inclusive currency comes at a fascinating time in our politics, a time when a sizable portion of the electorate is roiled by anger, agitation and fear. While some of that anxiety has its roots in economic uncertainty, much of it — especially among the supporters of Trump’s presidential bid — has its foundation in a deep-seated resentment of the nation’s changing demographics.

It’s no accident that Trump — who is among the “birthers” who insist President Barack Obama is not an American — leads the Republican presidential field while denouncing Mexican immigrants and denigrating Muslims. There is a substantial minority of white American voters who are threatened by the loss of numerical advantage, furious over the election of a black president, and resentful of the growing racial and ethnic diversity in American life.

Trump and his supporters have dominated the political narrative in this election season and ignited a civil war inside the Republican Party. They have panicked the Republican establishment. They have set off alarm bells in faraway capitals.

Yet, the racially intolerant are losing the battle for primacy in the American story. They no longer dominate the nation’s culture or mythology, as the changes in the currency illustrate.

Last year, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew invited the public to comment on his decision to recast a paper bill to feature a woman. Of the 15 women suggested by the activist group Women on 20s, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks, Tubman received the most votes.

A genuine American hero, she deserves the honor. As a young woman, she escaped the Maryland plantation that had enslaved her, and then made several trips back to assist others. Over a little more than a decade, she helped around 70 enslaved men and women find their way to freedom, traveling by night, using ingenious disguises and employing the hideouts established by the Underground Railroad.

She became an outspoken advocate for abolition, and when the Civil War broke out, she worked first as a cook and a nurse, and later as a scout and spy for the Union Army. After the war ended, she moved to a home she had purchased in upstate New York and campaigned for women’s suffrage.

Giving her prominence on the $20 bill forces the nation to acknowledge its original sin, slavery, as does demoting Jackson, a slaveowner. An accurate history further notes that the seventh president was notorious for his brutal treatment of native Americans, whom he forcibly removed from their lands. From now on, it will be difficult for history texts to ignore Tubman or to venerate Jackson.

Lew plans other changes, as well. A depiction of a 1913 march for women’s suffrage will be added to the back of the $10 bill, as will portraits of leaders of that movement. Images of Marian Anderson, Martin Luther King Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt will be added to the back of the $5 bill.

That’s as it should be. The journey toward a more perfect union demands an acknowledgment of where we’ve been.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker Haynes, Pulitzer Prize Winner for Commentary in 2007; Featured Post, The National Memo, April 23, 2016

April 24, 2016 Posted by | American Exceptionalism, Harriet Tubman, Women's Suffrage Movement | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Moving Past The Awkwardness With Respect”: Learning To Talk About Harriet Tubman, Slavery And Racism

Slavery and race are awkward and uncomfortable subjects for many Americans. As a result, we often find awkward and uncomfortable ways to talk about them. That was my conclusion earlier this week when, as a means of debuting his new channel All Def Digital, hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons posted a video parody titled, “Harriet Tubman’s Sex Tape.” In the video, the iconic “conductor” of the Underground Railroad is shown secretly recording sexual relations with her “Massa” in an attempt to blackmail him into allowing her to start her now famous freedom train. Almost as soon as it was released the three-minute video prompted a wave of condemnation and a Change.org petition. It wasn’t long before the NAACP asked Simmons to take it down. He offered an apology—”For all those I offended, I am sincerely sorry”—and removed the clip from his website.

Simmons’s satirical approach represents one extreme. (“I’m a very liberal person with thick skin,” he explained.) On the other is the trend of introducing children to slavery with traumatic role-playing exercises. For example, in 2008, a middle school social studies teacher in suburban New York, who is white, bound the hands and feet of two black girls and instructed them to crawl underneath a desk to simulate the conditions of a crowded slave ship. In 2011, an elementary school student in Ohio described himself as having been “humiliated” after he was forced to play the role of a slave at a mock slave auction and his white classmates were urged to degrade him during the exercise. That same year in Virginia, the Washington Post reported that a fourth grade teacher also held a mock slave auction in her class and that the white children took turns buying the black and mixed-race children.

It’s not just in school classrooms that this reality show approach to slavery is taking place.  At Connor Prairie Interactive History Park in Indiana, the public is asked to pay $20 to “Come face-to-face with slave hunters, see fear and hope in the eyes of a fellow runaway and… experience life as a fugitive slave during your journey through one of the most compelling periods in Indiana’s history. “ 60% of the visitors to the park are school children. According to a 2009 article from the Organization of American Historians’  Magazine of American History by historian Carl Weinberg, white visitors to the park often say they are getting quite a lot out of the experience of the reenactment, but it is not uncommon for African American visitors to feel uncomfortable about fully immersing themselves in the experience. Is this really a surprise to anyone?

Just for a moment, imagine if the holocaust was taught by either of these methods—a satire of Anne Frank, for example, trading sexual favors, or a fourth grade class of children being separated into jews and gentiles with the latter leading the former off to their death. It is hard to visualize either of those things happening. Slavery is the most profound mistake this country has ever made—”the great and foul stain upon the North America Union,” as John Quincy Adams said. We need to learn how to move past the awkwardness and talk with each other about it respectfully before we can laugh about it or relive the experience.

 

By: Noliwe M. Rooks, Time Magazine, August 17, 2013

August 18, 2013 Posted by | Race and Ethnicity, Racism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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