US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on Wednesday last week announced the most sweeping and historically symbolic change of the face of the country’s currency in a century, proposing to replace the image of Andrew Jackson, America’s seventh president on the $20 bill with anti-slave icon Harriet Tubman, an African American woman of the last century.
The US treasury periodically redesigns the country’s currencies based on federal officials’ assessment of counterfeiting threats. In other words, the government moves ahead of the bad guys who print fake US dollars. Through that process the Secretary of Treasury initiates steps to change the currency as needed. In this cycle, Secretary Jack Lew sought public opinion as to changes in the currency.
Last year, Mr. Lew committed to make a woman the face of the $10 bill but later changed opting instead to keep Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasury secretary. Following the pulse of public opinion especially those from women organizations, the popular choice turned out to be Harriet Tubman – symbolic victory for women.
The picture of the Treasury building on the back of the $10 bill would be replaced with a depiction of a 1913 march in support of women’s right to vote that ended at the building, along with portraits of five suffrage leaders: Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul and Susan B. Anthony, who in more recent years was on an unpopular $1 coin until minting ceased.
As expected, the announcement stirred a whole lot of comments from political pundits and most importantly from presidential candidates such as Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Senator Ted Cruz. For Trump, the move by the Obama administration is in his words an example of “political correctness” while Hillary Clinton and Sen. Ted Cruz have supported tossing Andrew Jackson off the $20 bill.
Although, changing the face of the dollar might appear insignificant to many, the action coming under the administration of the first African American president and the prospect of the first female president of the United States speak volumes as to the cataclysmic change taking place in a country tainted by slavery – man’s inhumanity to man and America’s original sin. So the replacement of Andrew Jackson who owned hundreds of slaves with Harriet Tubman, a former slave and abolitionist seems somewhat a historical reversal of role and convergence of history, heroism, and misogyny. Tubman’s courage and role as spy for the Union army during America’s civil war was unassailable while the controversy that surrounded Jackson’s marriage still spooks feminists today.
Therefore the remaking of the country’s paper currency captures a historical moment for a multicultural, multiethnic and multiracial nation in which leading Republican presidential candidates are determined to build walls and not bridges and ban Muslims from entering the United States.
It is also ironic that Andrew Jackson - one of the founding fathers of the modern Democratic Party is yanked off the face of the dollar under a Democratic Party administration that could not come to terms with Jackson’s support of slavery and his ruthless treatment of Native Americans. However, Jackson’s reputation as a defender of the common man against the wealthy, the banks and the corrupt insiders in Washington coincides with the anti-establishment ideals that are resonating powerfully in the current election cycle.
The larger lesson to learn in the process that led to the swap of Jackson’s image with Tubman’s is that change is permanent because today’s servant could be a mastertomorrow. Back in the 19th century, no one would have contemplated that Tubman’s struggle to free slaves such as those held by Jackson and his fellow slave owners would result in the honor of appearing on the $20 bill under the Obama administration.
The recognition of women continues to receive a pride of place since the Obama administration with the appointment of two female justices of the Supreme Court among other prominent positions. The remaking of the nation’s paper currency with the image of a woman – the first in nearly one hundred years is yet another milestone for the recognition of women in a male dominated world. Perhaps, the possibility of a President Hillary Clinton come November this year could cap the mantra of “change we can believe in” launched by Barack Obama in 2007.
The participation of nearly 700, 000 citizens in the eventual choice among15 historic figures mostly women that adorn the national currency is worth emulating by other countries. Although it is arguable as to the real democratization of the choice, the appearance of consultation with citizens and civil society groups projects a government that is interested in carrying its citizens along in decision making. Could the choice of Harriet Tubman been influenced by President Barack Obama, being an African American himself as Tubman? It is possible but it is not apparent or brazen as many dictators in some countries might operate under similar circumstances.
The move by the United States government to place an African American woman in the $20 bill also sends a powerful message to the rest of the world that America is changing and confronting its ugly past as uncomfortable as it may be. Moreover, all hate mongers and marginal racists are reminded each time they use the $20 bill that the world has moved on. The impact of the change can best be understood when we recognize the ubiquity of the dollar as the world’s famous currency often found in the wallets of millions or billions of people. So it is a historic and momentous decision that will outlive the first African American president.
Is there a parallel in Nigeria? While the recognition of Harriet Tubman amounts to an acknowledgment of past mistakes of a nation interested in genuine demonstration of remorse and earnest desire to reconcile, rehabilitate, and reconstruct tenuous relationships among an otherwise diverse country. This should be instructive to authorities in Nigeria that are unfortunately more eager to bury and/or delete history as evidenced by orchestrated effort to obliterate issues and events of Nigeria’s civil war and especially the heroes and heroines of that era. Of course there are several Harriet Tubmans in Nigeria but they are not recognized as much.
Even if a similar historical figure is identified to be honored in Nigeria, it is uncertain to what extent Nigerians will consulted in decisions of such magnitude. A consultation that is not only healthy for democracy but also helpful in encouraging debates that enlighten citizens about the history of the country. It is a way to also tell the country’s story to Nigerians and also to foreigners who might join the debate and ultimately use the Naira. In other words, public participation in decision making such as in the case under discussion creates a veritable platform to enable citizens raise objections where necessary even if the objections are not considered.
In the final analysis, Secretary Lew deserves commendation for this important milestone of honoring the first African American by making her the face of the dollar and face a contrite nation in transition to a post- racial world. It’s only the beginning as other sectors and facets of policy and politics yearn for changes.