President Obama said in his recent remarks that Harriet Tubman would likely greet the news she was on the $20 with little fanfare. In fact she might question how that would buy freedom. Still, while the change “on the money” is significant it has already become a political football for the presumed Republican frontrunner.
When Donald Trump calls Harriet Tubman’s selection as the face on the $20 bill “politically correct,” it is just another flag-wrapped slur. Let’s face it: his record shows he befriends Blacks, but he cannot accept Black achievement on merit. Nor can he accept a shift of power and image that results in a historic African-American replacing the legacy of a tarnished figure of the past or present. If you can’t keep them down, keep them out. Many in the country agree with him.
It’s one reason why today’s slurs come flag-wrapped. Affirmative action/politically correct/grievance politics are labels of blame that imply bias trumps merit. Its underlying principle appears in curious places. Found in the decision of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney regarding Dred Scott, in a floor speech by South Carolina Senator Ben Tillman, in editorials by respected journalist James J. Kilpatrick after the Brown school desegregation decision, it says opportunity by merit for some is un-American and dangerous.
Kilpatrick’s blunt editorials demanded school children be separated by race as the constitution makes no claim of “racial equality.” For him, the limits race put on opportunity were “unchanged by the Civil War, not altered in any way since the Constitution was created in 1787.”
The flag-wrapped principle of the new racism is the same as the old: opportunity has a freedom cost; it denies someone else a fair choice. Opportunity and freedom are mutually exclusive in this old American formula; equality is really a battle about winners and losers, losers who want to mar and taint our history.
Few people in history understood this battle better than Harriet Tubman, on whose life the system and its stakeholders once put a $40,000 bounty. In fact, her entire life was anything but politically correct. More than today’s conservatives, she understood balance sheet politics and its customs.
Another tactic of the new racism employs equality to challenge Black merit; its deflection offers alternatives. Why not Susan B. Anthony? Why not create a new denomination–the new racism’s version of separate but equal.
Because before Anthony, a woman who couldn’t rest without freedom slept on the cold, damp ground, hidden from the tracking hounds, outwitting her pursuers by risking her life for the simple action of bringing America’s freedom to others, an opportunity often more baffling than the bondage they had left, but one worth the ultimate, prayed for prize–worth every penny the price put on her head. Her legendary work with the Underground Railroad help galvanize the women’s movement. It inspired many to defy the system and make change. In an act of self-definition, born Araminta Ross, “Minty” took her mother’s name, Harriet.
So let us honor the politically incorrect Harriet Tubman. In the arc of her life she drew strength from grief and pain. Denied her full pension after her Civil War army service, a healer during her work with Union soldiers in Port Royal, SC at Camp Saxton (she saved many lives from dysentery through her knowledge of folk medicine, passed to her by the enslaved and from Native American traditions), she taught many of the camp’s contraband (the enslaved in Union camps who were without status during the war) how to earn their first income by cooking and working for the soldiers.
She was the first woman to lead U.S. troops in wartime. Appointed to lead the sweep of mines from the local rivers, she accepted the assignment and its dangers, and asked to handpick her men.
Doing that mission, she freed 900 slaves, the largest single emancipation event of the Civil War. On shore, word outpaced the ships: “Moses is coming. Moses is coming,” the words repeated as the enslaved gathered children and belongings (accounts say a pig or two) to crowd the decks of the ships bound back to Camp Randall.
She married a soldier from South Carolina that she met in Hilton Head and they returned together to Auburn, New York. In her fight for freedom during the war, in her service as a scout, spy, and nurse, she never fired a shot!
But she knew violence. At age 13, her skull was “broken,” smashed when a 2 pound scale weight thrown by the property holder left her in a coma for months and with a lifetime of pain, hypersomnolence, dizziness, and severe migraines.
On the day of emancipation, its first celebration at Camp Saxton at midnight (where a tree remains), her first words were “there’s a glory over everything.”
In February 1899, after more than 40 years of fighting the bureaucracy and politicians for compensation for her service, the Senate’s Committee on Pensions approved a widow’s pension for her of $20 a month. She who had a $40,000 bounty on her head, now has her portrait on money her status once denied. And yet that banner still waves.