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The U.S. Treasury announced recently that a portrait of Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill. The announcement was hailed as a victory by many and derided by many others. I find myself among the group of those who derides the decision to place Tubman on currency.

Harriett Tubman is a revered Black diaspora figure. There are few more well-known Black women figures across the Black diaspora. She is in part known for her fierce resistance to the enslavement of Black people in the U.S. and her role in the U.S. Civil War. Tubman’s resistance to enslavement led to her making many trips into the slaveholding economies of the U.S. south to liberate enslaved family members and many others, traveling with them along what became known as the Underground Railroad, leading sometimes all the way to Canada West.

If the Tubman story sometimes reads like myth it is not. Indeed, many of the figures that adore currency in North America are more shrouded in myth than Tubman. For example, Andrew Jackson whom she is slated to replace is mythically presented as a nation-builder. In actuality he was and remains a principle figure in the genocide and attempted genocide of Indigenous people.

To value him as a nation-builder, his genocidal acts must be whitewashed away. Jackson’s appearance on currency does a lot of work to uphold his nation-builder myth as opposed to making the facts of his life and his actions immediately present as a part of our historical everyday memories.

You can’t paper over systemic racism

Therefore I ask, what work does placing Harriett Tubman, or any Black person woman or man on U.S. and Canadian currency do? To answer such a question I have to think about what the work of representation does for us individually and collectively. The work of representation that in its most radical form can and does signal political and cultural transformation is seldom doing such work these days.

Most often the work of representation is used to seduce us into the veneration of single figures and symbols while the transformative work it is supposed to do is put on hold. In fact, most recently the work of representation has come to stand in place for actual change when no change is happening at all.

Individual representation and symbols are often now used to suggest that we all have access while providing a single instance of representation to paper over much deeper and significant problems. The celebration and elevation of singular individuals as some how representing all of use who are marginalized, pushed aside and otherwise despised, is offered up to the majority of us as change when it is exactly the opposite.

As the U.S. poet Adrienne Rich stated in 1997 when she publicly refused the National Medial for the Arts from then President Clinton, “A President cannot meaningfully honour certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonoured.”

I take my queues from Rich. Black people cannot be honoured by piecemeal forms of symbolic representation while the majority of us are generally despised in the U.S. and Canada, while living under forms of sever economic distress.

What does placing Black representation on currency work to do? In my view, such actions work to produce the myth that a certain settlement in “race relations” North America has been achieved. Such actions work to suggest that we have come to terms with the brutalities of the slave-holding past. Such actions seek to suggest to us individually that we too can be honoured and included in a society and culture that in everything else tells us it is launched against us.

The Black image on currency works to paper-over the ongoing plantation logics of our present and our future.

Moderating our radical pasts

Furthermore, such symbolic gestures take important figures like Tubman and rob them of their radical currency. Their stories become denuded of the ethical and moral claims that their actions demand of us, actions that were often in opposition to the very foundations of our present organization of human life. 

The usurping of their images works to suture together the very thing that they sought to destroy. Placing them on currency is not an honour; it is a theft of their more powerful narratives and their demand to create a different kind of world.

Black people in the Americas were once a kind of currency. We were labouring-commodities. To place our bodies once again on currency and claim it, as an honour is to disrespect our history of struggle to transform these societies that generally and widely still do not value our humanity.

To place us on currency without reparations preceding it is to produce an economy of fictions in which symbolic representation covers over our moral and ethical demands for a society in which the value of human life exceeds dollars and cents.

Our radical visionaries and revolutionaries like Tubman imaged a world of value that was far beyond the proliferation of plantation logics and the capitalist exchange value of currency and symbolic representation minus truth. Do not desecrate their images and their names in service of cheap forms of representation.

Rinaldo Walcott is director of the Women and Gender Studies Institute and a faculty member of Social Justice Education, both at University of Toronto.

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