Jarvis Journal: Faced with a Twenty-Dollar Bill

(New Essay excerpt, June 2019)

            I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was stunned. I wanted someone to say, “No! No! This makes no sense!”

            I had been watching television and a news announcement came on stating that Harriet Tubman was going to be the face of the new twenty-dollar bill. I stayed in front of the TV, listening for someone to rebut this notion. I was waiting to hear someone say, “No way! Come on, you guys! What are you really trying to say here?” But not a word. No one said a single word.

            Why would Harriet Tubman ever want her face printed on the very currency that sold her Mama and Daddy and all of the people of color she had ever known into slavery? The very institution that made wholesale out of human bondage, making its wealth on the backs of the tortured, setting up an economy of exploitation? If our ancestors were hearing this news, they would cry their hearts out. Harriet Tubman herself would be appalled…..

Here’s what I believe Harriet would say if she knew.

“Child, I was takin’ chance afta’ chance of bein’ torn apart an’ lynched in da process—an’ now, ye wanta put my face on ‘dis note ‘dat made our kind deir ‘property’—da very evil dat bought an’ sold my Daddy an’ Mama s’veral times ova? An’ so many otha’s who suffered by da whips, oh so bad, an’ now ye makin’ my face go ‘der? I can’t eitha’ put my face an’ name on da notes ‘dey paid fo’ people like Daddy an’ my Mama.”

            The transactions of slavery took place through American currency. All the slaves she tried to free had been bought and sold, owned and cast away like appliances. Worse than appliances. I’m sure Ms. Tubman, if she ever found out about this currency, wouldn’t know or understand why we would ask this of her….

And I feel the same way. Why are we doing this? How is it that so many people of color, namely African Americans, can be so thrilled and excited by this new prospect? If we had a chance moment to see and touch her scars and her heart in those life-lasting photographs, could we really think that she would ever want to have her own face on cash?

            Harriet Tubman belongs to history. Why not build a monument equal to the size of others at the Capital building, or a life-size portrait on a wall in the White House? How about constructing a Tubman Room, not far from the Lincoln Room? This courageous Black woman, who made such an indelible mark in the annals of American history, should have long ago replaced all those tributes to Robert E Lee. So where are the H. Tubman hospitals? She was a veteran of the Civil War, wasn’t she? Where are the hundreds of H. Tubman schools, parks, and libraries? Where are the street signs and highways? And other than a few scattered monuments in the south, where are the “Harriet Tubman” Black business signs?

            The most common currency used in drug sales in the inner city is the twenty-dollar bill. By far, it’s the bill of choice that does the most harm. It’s pocket cash that gives you that easy morning walk past the projects and across the street to the liquor store on the corner. The twenty-dollar rock of crack, hit of speed, or blowjob somewhere behind the apartment building because Mama doesn’t know what else to do to feed her three babies. Will the face of Ms. Tubman look out from each twenty-dollar bill at all of the addictions the currency is enabling in broken streets and broken hearts?......

            Is Harriet Tubman being asked to be a slave all over again? I am pained at the thought, a pain that is never going away.