Harriet Tubman and the White Man’s God

What does it mean when Egypt puts Moses on its currency?

Harriet Tubman“The white man’s dollar is his god.” So wrote Ida B. Wells in 1892 in Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases. She writes this in a section about what “the Afro-American can do for himself” in the face of lynching, but her words reminded me of the conflict I felt over the news that Harriet Tubman’s likeness will soon be added to the twenty-dollar bill. As social media friends reminded me, the inclusion of an African-American woman on the country’s currency begins to address the lack of representation on something so ubiquitous and, supposedly, democratic.

But because I think Wells is right, it’s hard to share this optimism. Because American money is the white man’s god, its symbolism should be viewed from the perspective of those who regulate this sacred object. In her day, Tubman was viewed not as a symbol of the nation’s ideals but as the embodied threat to those ideals. Those in power didn’t follow her lead but understood their role in opposing her and her fellow revolutionaries by passing the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850.

There will be many ways that Tubman’s likeness on the currency can be interpreted and I, for one, will be glad to see her face rather than the bill’s current occupant. But there are fewer ways that we can interpret the decision to include her. Either the nation has changed to the extent that it recognizes Tubman’s ideals of freedom and full humanity for all of its citizens, or, as we’ve seen with so many other Black abolitionists and civil rights leaders, we are watching the blunting of this woman’s particular prophetic edge. By placing one of its fiercest critics on its most sacred symbol, the nation intends for us to believe that it has finally come to embrace all this woman represents. It’s a lie that can only be believed by those who choose not to see the continual oppression dealt by the state to its Black and Brown citizens.

For leading exoduses of enslaved people to freedom, Harriet Tubman became known to friends and enemies alike as Moses. So now the face of Moses will grace Egypt’s currency but it’s still Egypt’s prejudiced ideologies and unholy ends that will be served by the white man’s god.

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Postscript: I write all of the above as someone who sees my white male self everywhere I look. And while it’s impossible for me to genuinely know anything else, I can imagine how, despite some internal conflict, finally seeing a personal representation on something so visible and valuable would be worthy of great celebration.

Author: David Swanson

Pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville. Collecting signs of life.

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