In the era of Donald Trump, perhaps nothing should surprise me any more. Still, I admit I am genuinely perplexed by the amount of criticism I’ve seen of the decision to replace the portrait of Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill with one of Harriet Tubman. Trump, himself, weighed in of course, calling the choice “pure political correctness.” But, he’s hardly the only one. My Facebook and Twitter feeds have been deluged by people discovering a new found reverence for our seventh president.
Of course, the outcry is not really about Jackson, an important figure in American history, though deeply flawed and far from the status of, say, Washington, Lincoln, or Jefferson. For some partisans, it is simply that if President Obama wants to do it, it must be wrong. But for far too many of those writing, there seems to be a fundamental objection to replacing a white male Founding Father, with a black woman.
This is pure symbolism, I’m told. Well, duh! What else are portraits on our money but symbols? And, if that’s the case, in a nation as diverse as ours, why shouldn’t women and people of color participate in those symbols. Indeed, given our long history of repressing women, African-Americans, and others, isn’t it all the more important to include them as part of American symbology?
But, I’m told, Harriet Tubman did not personally have the impact on U.S. history and development as Jackson. True. And isn’t that part of the point? Women and people of color were denied the opportunity to help develop this country in the way that white men could. That is changing. And it is long past time to recognize it.
In her own way and in the context of the times – indeed, all the more so given the context of the times – Harriett Tubman was a great woman. Born a slave, frequently beaten and abused, she escaped to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Not content with just her own freedom, she became a key organizer with the Underground Railroad, often risking death, imprisonment, or even re-enslavement to rescue other slaves. During the Civil wat she acted as a scout and spy, and later became the first woman to lead troops in a military engagement during the war, the raid on Combahee Ferry. After the war, she became active in the woman’s suffrage movement. A lifelong advocate for freedom and equality, who could better typify America and the American promise?
Political correctness – real political correctness – runs the gamut from dangerous to silly. No, eating a taco is not “cultural appropriation.” But every change that benefits women, African-Americans, Latinos, gays, or others who have long suffered as second class Americans, is not being politically correct. Sometimes, its simply overdue justice. And if putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill makes us a little more aware of our past, both the good and bad, I’m all for it.