Wednesday, April 20, 2016

On the Twenty-Dollar Bill

It's official. Andrew Jackson, genocidal maniac, will no longer be on the $20 bill. Instead, future generations will see Harriet Tubman, a formidable woman who rescued hundreds of people from chattel slavery, when they pay for their coffee. Many of the descendants of the people she rescued are now Canadian citizens. She was also known to threaten her charges with their lives unless they followed her. Morality is complicated. So is history. But the version of Tubman who will appear on the $20 bill is part of our heritage, a stand-in for the many strong, angry women and people of color who fought for social justice and, until the last few decades, were largely erased from our high-school textbooks. The complicated Tubman, the interesting Tubman, the human Tubman, will not be on our currency. That's okay. Heritage has its uses.

I always wondered why Andrew Jackson was on our $20 bill. I'm not talking about his opposition to the national bank. I just don't think the average educated citizen had any knowledge as to his supposed good points, or the parts of his legacy that mattered. If you graduated with an A in elementary American history you know, or at least think, that Washington refused to be king, Lincoln freed the slaves, and Grant won the Civil War. And Hamilton -- well, I guess the average citizen didn't know that much about Hamilton until recently. But Jackson...I don't know if the average citizen even knows about the War of 1812.

If I had complete power, I would split the commemorations on our currency. The paper currency and the obverse sides of our coins would honor unelected social justice giants, like King, Sojourner Truth, Cesar Chavez, and Eugene Debs. The reverse sides of our coins would go to our writers and musicians. Hell, the American empire will be most remembered for its music and literature. So, we can start with Whitman, Dickinson, Crane, Melville, Ellison, Baldwin, Cather, Roth, and Faulkner. Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, Gershwin, Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Irving Berlin, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Little Richard.

We still have 15 more years of Jackson. There are so many logistics to take care of before we can switch currencies. One more generation of Jackson. By that point, global warming will have wrought havoc to the world's major economies, inflation will have skyrocketed and the $20 bill may be worth no more than the $1 bill today.

But yes...These things matter.

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