From Doodle to a future $20 bill, Harriet Tubman is a cultural icon. But comforting images don’t show the disabled Black woman who was not only a guide, but a freedom fighter.
On Feb. 1, 2014, Google featured freedom fighter, activist, and abolitionist Harriet Tubman as a Doodle illustration on its homepage.
The image depicted Tubman wearing a patterned headscarf and shawl and holding a lantern on a starry night. While not a direct reference to any of the widely circulated images of Tubman, the Doodle included objects closely associated with her, including the silk lace and linen shawl gifted to her by Queen Victoria. The lantern nodded to her role as the most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad, and the starry night to her leading fugitive enslaved people away from chattel slavery.
But where was her gun? Although a singular image couldn’t capture the breadth of Tubman’s extraordinary life, the Doodle sanitized the image and legacy of this insurgent historical figure. I felt it lacked the revolutionary energy that propelled Tubman and resonated as only a partial recuperation of the disabled Black woman who was an enemy of the state.
Such limits of representation are central to Twenty Dollars and Change: Harriet Tubman and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice and Democracy, the new book from author, activist, and political scientist Clarence Lusane. He revisits Tubman’s life to examine what we learn from her legacy and how we commemorate her extraordinary life.
Tubman is foundational to how I, as a queer Black feminist, think about liberatory politics and the robust Black abolitionist tradition. More than 100 years after Tubman led 150 Black Union soldiers in the Combahee River Raid, an operation that liberated more than 700 enslaved people, a queer Black feminist and socialist collective named itself after this revolutionary act. The Combahee River Collective (CRC), founded in 1974, crafted the Combahee River Collective Statement, one of the most significant and influential modern Black feminist writings. For the CRC, Tubman embodied their assertion that “if Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”
Throughout her life, Tubman’s body was brutalized, exploited, and hunted, while her embodied resistance was criminalized, demonized, and vilified. Far too often, popular narratives about Tubman erase that part of her history as well as the war this nation literally and figuratively waged against her body, her life, and her radical vision of freedom. To recover her “heroism” without being fully transparent about the violent opposition she faced prompts considerable anxiety about the use of her image as a symbol of American progress.
Without question, Tubman warrants celebration for her distinct contribution to African American freedom struggles, the women’s suffrage movement, and the fight for elderly/aging care—and these contributions occurred with the support of individuals and communities. Her victories against white supremacy don’t necessitate hagiographic and mythologizing treatments to convey their significance.
Tubman’s likeness, much like that of African American freedom fighter Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., has become a curious venue for U.S. self-congratulatory statecraft. Absent from predominating narratives about King are his anti-war, anti-imperialist, and anti-capitalist politics. Any tribute to Tubman that fails to acknowledge that her work as an abolitionist opposed white supremacist, patriarchal, and ageist laws, conventions, and norms is valueless.
In Twenty Dollars and Change, Lusane takes up the vigorous debate about plans to put Tubman’s likeness on the $20 bill in place of former U.S. President Andrew Jackson and explores Tubman’s unwavering commitment to “gender, race, and economic equality.” By the conclusion of this incisive and thought-provoking book, Lusane seamlessly connects Tubman’s legacy—including the use of her likeness—to ongoing struggles against white supremacy and the evolution of Black traditions of resistance. Moreover, he traces a long history of Black women—known and unknown and unnamed—as leaders of resistance and harbingers of social change.
Lusane offers varying perspectives on the prospect of Tubman’s image appearing on U.S. currency, delving into debates within Black communities as well as progressive non-Black communities. Although I am adamantly opposed to Tubman’s likeness being used on U.S. currency, I see his approach to the debate as generative and allowing space for opposing perspectives to be heard. He compellingly pinpoints why Tubman deserves every accolade bestowed upon her as a progenitor for a U.S. democracy not yet in existence. Without question, as Lusane declares, “No one represents the fight to be free of domination and hierarchy—and the good trouble that often involves—better than Tubman.” This fight roars into our present moment.
African Americans remain entrenched in and subjugated within a white supremacist racial hierarchy. We still aren’t free—our lives remain surveilled, policed, and criminalized. From targeted mass incarceration to the divestment from public education to police violence to voter suppression to unlivable wages to health disparities, racist marginalization prevails. Twenty Dollars and Change is a call to look to Tubman’s activism for inspiration and the wherewithal to fight.
While I disagree with Lusane’s heralding of a Tubman $20 as a “small but important victory,” I understand why upending, removing, and replacing white supremacist symbols matter. Tubman worked to tear down the systems created by many of the white men who are currently on U.S. currency. Her likeness and legacy inspire generations and remind us of how transformative we can be when we commit to liberatory politics. Tubman’s image fills me with pride, especially those images that capture her tenacity, her fatigue, and her dignity as a freedom fighter. I’m sure it does the same for millions of other people.
The ways Tubman put her body on the line for Black people’s freedom serve as a point of entry and a clear demonstration of what it means to dedicate oneself to the emergence of a world that does not yet exist.
To follow in her footsteps is to commit to abolishing the systems that harm and kill us. The symbolism may propel us forward, but her body of work is a map we can hold onto as we chart our paths toward freedom.