Harriet Tubman, a woman who once had a $40,000 bounty on her head, will be the new face of the American $20 bill. Tubman was a slave — the property of her white master, who could have had insurance policies taken out on her life to cover the risk of her being killed or running away. She was a woman who was not considered fully human by the United States government under the Three-Fifths Compromise. Tubman was literally currency — traded and sold, a “capitalized womb” — and now she is being made to be the face of American currency.
There is irony in the fact that the U.S. Treasury has chosen to “honor” an enemy of the state. Like Nat Turner, Stokely Carmichael, Assata Shakur and Fred Hampton, Tubman was a revolutionary criminal. They were also staunchly anti-capitalist. All of them had their lives torn apart by white supremacy and the unbridled profiteering from the lives of marginalized and decimated people.
So how can Tubman be honored by placing her face on the symbol of the very object and system that perpetuated — and predestined — her oppression? Symbolism has its place. Admittedly, this gesture will spark conversations that need to be had. People will Google “Harriet Tubman” and find out about her courage. They will ask questions about slavery and black lives not mattering. They will seek out information about U.S. currency. Conversation is a strong tool to open up the minds of people and encourage reconciliation. However, this is not restorative. Our God calls for willing restoration — not symbols — when people are in need of safety and justice.
Our God calls for willing restoration — not symbols — when people are in need of safety and justice.
Black people in America have been given many symbols: a bust of George Washington Carver; a school dedicated to Carter G. Woodson; a memorial at the boyhood home of W.E.B. Du Bois. Yet none of these confront the reality recognized by the Black Lives Matter movement: that police forces have been taking black lives without legal accountability. None of these bring back the black men and women languishing in prison for committing crimes from which white men now profit. None of them stop employers from leaning on the fruit of the American Drug War to prohibit millions of African Americans from gainful employment. None of these create an iota of belief that the American Dream has ever been attainable for black people. There are exceptions — from university presidents to the president of the United States — but the reality is that black Americans still sit at the bottom of the demography in terms of health outcomes, educational attainment, wealth and employment. Exceptions cannot define us if we are to call ourselves a great nation. No symbol will fix that. Restoration is needed.
God calls us to restore what has been taken, especially when the spoils of war continue. From the dawn of America to Black Wall Street to mortgage discrimination to the War on Drugs, so much has been literally taken from black people in this country. As Christians, our process of racial reconciliation must mirror the process that Christ laid out. When Zacchaeus was confronted with Christ, his soul was reconciled by his willingness to give back four-fold what he had taken from those he had robbed. Throughout the Gospel, we see Christ push back against people’s attempts to do the minimum for those they have hurt. Indeed, Christ pushes back against those who would attempt to follow Him by simply following the Law, while still holding fast to their money.
The process of acknowledgement, apology, atonement and acceptance is seen repeated over and over in the New Testament. The issues that plague the descendants of Tubman today are not accidental. They are the product of generations of injustice. Blood has been spilled in America. Literally. And it has been done in the name of profit, white supremacy and capitalism. We cannot reclaim spilled blood with the knife that made the wound. Capitalist symbols are not the answer.
Christ calls us to not only reconcile, but to do so by the restorative process He modeled, which includes restitution. No symbol can feed families who have lost their heads of households to jails that were set up for them. No symbol can bring to justice the tax formulas that prioritize the superior education of those who have expensive homes over those who had barely a chance to get a job paying a living wage. We cannot fight restitution or restoration and be absolved. We cannot make right what was done to an ancestor — and is still being done to her descendants — by providing them with a picture of her to keep in their pockets.