During the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency, his Treasury Secretary, Jack Lew, announced a major change to the face of some U.S. currency, notably the $20 bill.
News broke that Harriet Tubman has been chosen to replace Andrew Jackson, the nation’s 7th president, whose brutal Indian removal policy resulted in the tragic forced Diaspora march known as the Trail of Tears.
So far, the complex logistics involved in making the change have slowed the process considerably; the original target date of 2020 has been reset for 2030.
Meanwhile, flashpoints over who is truly representative of American democratic ideals have flared. Even as Harriet Tubman’s legacy has grown, Andrew Jackson’s portrait was hung in the Oval Office during Donald Trump’s presidency.
Ongoing debates have intensified regarding the importance of symbolism as cultural currency.
Dr. Clarence Lusane, scholar, author, and commentator, whose expertise emanates from his longstanding study of U.S. political history, and it’s relationship with African American history, honed in on the discussion in his most recent book, Twenty Dollars and Change: Harriet Tubman and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice and Democracy (San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 2022).
(Among Lusane’s previous works are The Black History of the White House, Hitler’s Black Victims, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice: Foreign Policy, Race, and the New American Century.)
Professor Lusane, former Howard University Political Science Chair, explained his book’s premise during a February 3rd Black History Month event at The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center. He was joined by Ernestine (Tina) Martin Wyatt, Tubman’s great-great-great grandniece, co-founder of Washington D.C.’s Harriet Tubman Day, who he credited with helping review and comment on his manuscript prior to publication.
In 2017, Lusane had made a prior memorable pilgrimage to the Park. In his preface to Twenty Dollars, Lusane described how he and son Ellington, then 7, awakened “at 5:00 a.m.for a bus trip to the much-anticipated grand opening of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Church Creek, Maryland.”
Traveling with a group of Black senior women, many aged 70 and up, who had chartered the bus, the ride was filled with “lots of discussions about history, race, and what Harriet Tubman meant to African Americans and the nation as a whole,” Lusane recalled. He also noted that throughout most of that stimulating sojourn, Ellington remained oblivious, more occupied with his Power Rangers book.
In addition to the numerous “hands-on historical displays, for the opening, a large tent was set up and talks were presented on a range of subjects. For young people, there were history lessons and role-playing, entailing costumes and wigs that could be worn as the youth learned about the antebellum period and how enslaved people organized revolts and escapes to freedom,” he recalled.
On the return trip home, instead of his Power Rangers story, Ellington’s attention was glued to his newly acquired book, What Was the Underground Railroad, by Yona Zeldis McDonough.
In a recent virtual interview anchored from his publisher’s landmark bookstore in San Francisco, Lusane alluded to that visit, notably his son’s piqued interest afterwards, as being among his main influences for writing the book as he did.
Another impetus was the realization that his current college students, born after 2000, had missed learning about much of the historical backstory behind today’s current events.
Lusane also wanted to provide a more comprehensive understanding of Tubman’s remarkable life, well beyond being the “Moses” of her people, including her courageous Civil War service, which went far beyond the often mentioned roles of nurse and cook.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History’s website details the successful Combahee Ferry Raid:
“On June 2, 1863, Harriet Tubman, under the command of Union Colonel James Montgomery, became the first woman to lead a major military operation in the United States when she and 150 African American Union soldiers rescued more than 700 slaves in the Combahee Ferry Raid during the Civil War.”
This service is especially noteworthy, considering that after the war, while Confederate soldiers were awarded pensions of $20, along with their Union counterparts, Tubman struggled to receive any such compensation until later in life, when she received a payment based largely on her second husband’s service, Lusane mentioned.
He also pointed to Tubman’s lifelong commitment to the fight for expanding voting rights, notably for women. Lusane described how, as the 1913 Women’s Suffrage March on Washington was getting underway, Black women were in danger of being relegated to the rear of the march.
Practically on her deathbed, Tubman nevertheless sent a message urging Ida B. Wells and others to remain in the fight, that God would not forsake their cause, he added.
In 1965, in Bessemer and Birmingham, Alabama, Lusane’s own grandmother drew inspiration from Tubman’s example, joining the March across the Edward Pettis Bridge.
As timely as the book is due to Tubman’s bicentennial birth celebration last year, it also speaks to the heated debate over national symbols. Though often simmering in the background, the outcry after George Floyd’s 2020 murder ignited a greater national reckoning than ever before. At long last, statues, schools, and streets named for Confederate and white supremacist figures, were no longer acceptable to many.
That debate hits close to home for Lusane. During the turbulent 1960s, he attended Detroit magnet high school Cass Tech, named for Lewis Cass, one of the city’s legendary political lions (the Cass family had donated farm land for the original school in 1861).
But, as the Detroit Historical Society detailed, Cass had served as President Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of War, in charge of his policy of Indian removal. Earlier, as the governor of Michigan Territory, he’d coerced tribes around the Great Lakes to sell their lands to the U.S. government.
Cass was also a slaveowner, and a proponent of and originator of the phrase Popular Sovereignty.
“Back then, we didn’t know all that,” Lusane added, noting that the school’s student body was 90 percent Black. “We probably would have been out protesting. But, once you do know something, you can’t unknow it. You have to at least raise your voice, and that’s what I’ve tried to incorporate in this book,” Lusane added.
Acknowledging the legitimate concerns of some in the Black community that symbols can be exploitive, representing “performance anti-racism” in lieu of actual change, Lusane makes his case that they nevertheless matter.
“Symbols are important. They’re mobilizing. They’re educational. They’re narratives about society and life. And whoever controls which symbols are presented, has significant control. So, symbolism isn’t separate from power, it’s a critical component of it.”
Debra Messick is a retired Dorchester County Public Library associate and lifelong freelance writer. A transplanted native Philadelphian, she has enjoyed residing in Cambridge MD since 1995.