On Wednesday afternoon, the United States Treasury made an unprecedented announcement; in 2020, Harriet Tubman will grace the cover of America’s twenty dollar bill. When my phone’s news notifications alerted me, I called foul. I checked other sources in disbelief. Eventually, it became clear that the announcement was legitimate. The excitement that ensued was shared by many. In fact, my Facebook timeline is still overrun by photos of Tubman’s face. Though I’m still excited, my initial glee has somewhat faded due to a preoccupation with a number of questions. 

I first began to think critically about the news after reading a critique published in The Washington Post. The editorial asserts that slavery existed as the primary foundation of American capitalism; thus, by tying Tubman to American currency, the Treasury inadvertently undermines her legacy. The author also notes the unsettling irony of the Treasury’s decision to place Tubman, a black liberator, on one of black America’s greatest oppressors—money.  According to the author, the printing of this new currency serves only to hide the perpetual oppression of black Americans. 

In my social spheres, this argument has become almost as popular as the announcement itself. I remain hesitant. The questions the author raises are convoluted—honestly, a “correct” answer may not exist. The concerns she and others have raised are valid, however, such a hasty and complete dismissal of the new prints gives me pause. Indeed, our society is still deeply entrenched in white supremacy, but to reject this long-overdue recognition is counter-productive. 

The concerns seem to stem from the fear that society will use these Tubman prints to sweep racism under the rug. This consideration is not far-fetched. Barack Obama’s presidency is currently used as “proof” of a mythical post-racial society; Tubman’s bills could easily take its place. Obama’s election did not better the black condition and it did not keep white supremacy at bay. Yet, it was progress—if only symbolic—and we rejoiced. We rejoiced because despite the stagnation of the condition of the masses, his election gave us representation. Through representation, it changed our self-perception. 

The election of Obama is a testament to the power of representation—a power that will be revealed yet again upon the printing of the Tubman bills. You do not need to be a person of color in order to understand the effect that the 2008 election had on Black America. I vividly remember that November night—my seventh-grade, newly-empowered self, sobbed. I was not alone. A wave of newfound ambition was instilled in many. This was especially apparent in black youth. Though some may have erroneously read his election as a sign of racial equality, many knew otherwise. Thus, the strive for black advancement did not pause. The fight continued on the same trajectory. If anything, the election served as fuel. 

The Tubman bills clearly differ from the 2008 election. However, like the election, Tubman’s bills have the potential to uplift Black Americans—and more importantly, black youth—through representation. Black heroism is a neglected component of America’s historical narrative. To ignore the impact of this omission is irresponsible. Tubman’s placement on the American dollar affirms her rightful status as an American hero. Instead of being relegated to a separate box labeled “black,” she is being thrust into the mainstream historical narrative. Moreover, because the medium is currency, this change pushes the her—our—narrative into the everyday sphere. Though the printing of these bills may seem relatively arbitrary, I know that the impact will be anything but.