Much of my social media is ablaze with talk over Harriet Tubman being put on the $20 bill. As this article by Chanelle Adams over at Black Girl Dangerous highlights Black folks have a variety of feelings about this. As a white man I don’t have any desire to tell Black people how they should feel. What I do want to talk about is Andrew Jackson.
Andrew Jackson is often framed in history as being a champion of the people. I imagine that this has much to do with how he ended up on the $20 in the first place. As we should always do when discussing American populism we must ask ourselves who are “the people” that Jackson was championing. In doesn’t take a historian to find the ugly truth, Jackson, like so many other American heroes, was a slave holding homicidal racist. The people for whom he was a champion were the disenfranchised poor whites who Jackson strategically leveraged to win the Presidency.
This shouldn’t surprise us, this is what whiteness does. At every turn Whiteness capitalizes on the opportunity to further divide working class and poor whites from people of color who may share similar material and spiritual interests i.e. providing for their families and being connected to the larger human family. Jackson is the epitome of this. He became popular in early America through his skill in warfare and by killing a man in a duel to protect the honor of his wife. As President he threatened to use the military to crush state rebellion in the nullification crisis. All of this was fueled by Jackson’s support of working class white male suffrage. Up to this point, non-landing owning white men could not vote; being fed up with the denial of the rights they felt the Revolution was fought to secure for them they were demanding they be given this and other rights they felt they deserved, a pre-internet #whitelivesmatter campaign.
And let’s be clear, it was a #whitelivesmatter campaign. As President Jackson was pushing the full humanity of poor whites he signed the Indian Removal Act and held hundreds of slaves at the Hermitage plantation where he died. This fundamental contradiction of morality can not be understated. Whiteness demands an abandonment of what we know to be good and true. We quite literally sell our souls to Whiteness. Andrew Jackson is the epitome of this devils bargain.
At this point it is absolutely necessary to connect the legacy of Jackson to our current situation. Jackson organized and gave birth to the Democratic party. The party that vigorously opposed abolition and federal programming during Reconstruction. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Movement, when the Democratic party included civil rights into its platform that they became the Democratic party of today. And let’s be clear about what that party is today. While it has shifted superficially the Democrats are just as reliant on White Supremacy as any Republican is. How could they not be with a founder like Andrew Jackson?
That brings me to the $20 dollar bill and Harriet Tubman sharing space with this monster of history. If we really want to honor what Harriet Tubman fought for, if we really want to begin to hear from the atrocities that stain that currency, then we can start by removing Jackson and all the other slaveholder Presidents from the exalted positions they currently occupy. We need to tell the truth about what this country was founded on. By putting Tubman on the 20$ but avoiding the rest of what is necessary to honor her legacy we are doing what Whiteness always does: tokenize and pacify in order to maintain survival. I suggest we keep Harriet Tubman on the $20 and begin paying reparations with them.