Editor’s Note: Laura Coates is a CNN senior legal analyst. She is a former assistant US attorney for the District of Columbia and trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. She is the host of the daily “Laura Coates Show” on SiriusXM. Follow her @thelauracoates. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion at CNN.
Money talks. It’s an adage ingrained in the minds of the American consumer. Our country’s wealth speaks volumes when the US asserts its prominence on the global stage, and our President’s wealth was touted as a credential for his candidacy during the 2016 election.
But America’s money tells a tale of power, as well as subjugation – the subjugation of women, the subjugation of people of color, and the subjugation of history. America’s money tells a tale of inequality. The delay in placing Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill speaks to that subjugation.
It’s telling that the President has responded to anti-racist protesters who have torn down Confederate statues in recent weeks by swiftly signing an executive order to protect the monuments of men who fought to preserve slavery at the expense of the union.
Donald Trump has chosen to celebrate Confederates who fought a war against their own country and killed hundreds of thousands of Americans in the process so they could continue to torture, terrorize and enslave human beings. Meanwhile, his administration has reportedly delayed the roll-out of a redesigned bill that bears the face of a woman who not only fought against slavery, but did so in furtherance of the union. (Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who denied the claim that he delayed the redesign, said the new bill requires the development of anti-counterfeiting technology and a new print process.)
When the President spoke at the United States Military Academy at West Point graduation earlier this month, he praised the honorable cadets for their service. He said, “You became brothers and sisters pledging allegiance to the same timeless principles, joined together in a common mission to protect our country, to defend our people, and to carry on the traditions of freedom, equality, and liberty that so many gave their lives to secure … Today, you graduate as one class, and you embody one noble creed: Duty, Honor, Country.”
This is a commander in chief who touts duty to one’s country in one breath, before asking our nation to continue paying homage to the Confederate generals who rebelled against the US military in the next. It is this same commander in chief who vilified athletes for kneeling during the National Anthem, claiming the peaceful protest was disrespectful and unpatriotic. And yet, he asks America to honor those who fought against actual patriots and tried to destroy the country by seceding from the union.
Harriet Tubman is not a controversial figure in American history. She was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, a military veteran serving as both a nurse and the head of an espionage network for the Union Army, the founder of a nursing home for the elderly and poor, and an outspoken advocate for women and African Americans. Her varied contributions were arguably more impactful than those of our lesser-known presidents. But despite her objective heroism, the administration has chosen not to expedite the redesign of the $20 bill.
There is often a misunderstanding that only presidents appear on our notes, but there is no such requirement. Neither Benjamin Franklin, who graces the $100 bill, nor Alexander Hamilton, who is featured on the $10 bill, ever served as president. Neither did Salmon P. Chase, Martha Washington, Sacagawea, John Marshall, Susan B. Anthony, William Sherman, Joseph Mansfield, William Marcy or George Meade – all of whom have appeared on various denominations of United States currency. I challenge you to identify the contributions of all the aforementioned without the help of a search engine.
But it’s not logic that dictates the delay. It is a myopic, one-sided view of history, and a seeming disregard for the symbolism behind the selection of Harriet Tubman.
What Harriet Tubman symbolizes is a human being who refused to wait for the wheels of justice to decide she deserved inalienable rights, not the least of which were life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What she represents is the refusal to be governed by a nation whose leaders failed to assent to laws that were wholesome and necessary for the public good. What she represents is the fight to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our progeny. What she represents is the frustration of not being able to participate in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. As the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe once said, “There is that great proverb – that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Harriet Tubman represents but one instance where the lioness might finally get the glory of a full telling of the history.
Our currency could help tell that story to the world – indeed it could be a testament to our principles and ideals. It is a symbol that not only represents our actual wealth but also symbolizes who we believe best reflects our values. We have the opportunity to put our money where our mouth is, and let it speak to those values.
America would be wise to show the world what it really stands for. Right now, we are showing the world that we value Confederate generals who tried to tear apart the nation more than freedom fighters. Right now, we are showing the world that we honor those who championed slavery – instead of those who fought against it. Right now, we are showing the world that America doesn’t believe that a heroic Black woman is worthy of occupying space on our currency.
In fact, we are showing that she is unworthy of even sharing that space with a white man who died believing her oppression was just. Remember, the redesign doesn’t remove Andrew Jackson, it simply places him on the back, with Tubman on the front. What we are showing the world is that we are slaves to our history, not students of it, impotent against inanimate bronze representations of unrighteous men long deceased. What we are showing is that we mistake evolution of thought for erasure of heritage.
While history and its legacy can never be erased, neither is IT the sole determinate of our future. When it comes to showing the world who we are, and what we stand for, we need only to apply the law of inertia that says an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. Simply put, American progress will be forever stymied unless and until we remove the unbalanced force that glorifies those who have betrayed our ideals.
Now, there are those who will suggest that this is much ado about nothing. That Tubman’s placement on the $20 bill is a meaningless gesture that rings hollow, given more pressing matters like police brutality and a public health crisis. But symbolism is a catalyst for change, not a nod to frivolity.
As a nation, we are keenly aware of the power of symbolism. We are asked to pledge allegiance to the flag and to the republic for which it stands. From the image of Ruby Bridges being escorted to school by four federal marshals to Emmett Till’s open casket to a black-gloved fist raised on an Olympic podium to George Floyd’s chilling last words only a month ago, his neck pressed for nearly nine minutes beneath a police officer’s knee: “I can’t breathe,” America has always been aware of the power of imagery in advancing civil rights on the world stage. America has a choice to use that imagery for good or for evil.
Money talks. Why should America be silent when the world is listening?