Black triumph is Harriet Tubman now replacing Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. Black anger is what my soul feels because Harriet Tubman is the new face of the $20 bill. Her life was one big “screw you” to a country and economic system steeped in white supremacy and misogyny. As a black, slave woman, her life was a middle finger to both. Now she is to be memorialized on our currency. Her life challenged the country and its economic system and by honoring her, the country makes a tacit admission that her cause was just: black triumph. On the other hand, that this symbolic gesture passes for true racial progress is maddening: black anger. One part of me celebrates the symbolism while the other is screaming out to my people to ignore the symbolism and look for substance.
We are often guilty of celebrating symbolism at the expense of not pushing for more substance. Symbolism is Bill Clinton playing his saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show while the substance was Clinton ramping up the drug war and paving the way for this disastrous epidemic of mass incarceration we have today. Symbolism is having a black president while the substance is all of black America living in fear that his blackness will invite assassination. Symbolism is having a black woman on a $20 bill while the substance is black women have a median wealth of only five $20 bills, according to sociologist Mariko Chang. Symbolism won’t end the mass incarceration of black people, undo our fear of and subjugation to white supremacy or pay a bill. It’s about substance, my black anger says.
Yet there is still black triumph. I never thought in my life I would see a black president and I certainly never fathomed the thought of a woman- an escaped slave- being the face of our currency. Further, I never dreamed that “white folks would let” a vile, wicked racist like Andrew Jackson be dethroned (although he will still be featured on the back of the $20 bill). Even so, that’s precisely what has happened. My understanding of America has always been that any attempt at black freedom is challenged and indeed, never celebrated. Tubman was an escaped slave who risked her life many times, traveling back to her native Maryland to free others. Andrew Jackson, on the other hand, was a President who was responsible for the death of thousands of Indigenous Americans through his “Indian Removal Act.” That Act forcibly removed several tribes from their homeland and led to untold suffering, at the hands of a racist president. America now says that Tubman is greater than Jackson. Never would I have imagined, black triumph says.
Will I go out and secure a few “Tubmans” now? Hell yeah, that’s black triumph. Will I also bear in mind the work we must collectively do to ensure we are holding many more of those Tubmans? Of course, says my black anger. Little Willy (Bill Clinton) fooled us with his symbolism. We have lived through Obama’s presidency in great fear of his assassination and the opposition he faces, much of it fostered by the white supremacy that still lingers in our nation. Let’s not also be fooled by the symbolism of a black face on a bill many of us aren’t holding.