April 20th of every year is always a controversial day. Usually, the controversy stems (pin intended) from advocates for marijuana use celebrating the day by smoking the illicit weed, talking openly about medical and scientific studies about the plant, and cracking “Four Twenty” jokes at 4:20 pm.
But this year, the day was more mired in controversy than usual, though not about marijuana. The focus was just on half of the “Four Twenty” holiday. The twenty half to be exact.
Or should I say, $20?
On April 20, 2016, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, announced plans for Harriet Tubman, former slave and suffragette, to replace 7th United States President Andrew Jackson, on the front of the twenty-dollar bill. The design is scheduled to be officially announced in 2020, likely again on 4/20.
But while the portrait of Tubman will grace the front of the $20 bill, Andrew Jackson will take over the back of the bill.
It goes without saying that this is a historic move for many reasons. The obvious of course is that this will be the very first African American on United States currency, and the first woman to grace a dollar bill, rather than just a coin. But this will also be the very first time two historical figures will occupy both the front and the back of the bill, and Jackson's role is stirring up controversy.
For starters, it is demeaning that the only time a Black woman gets to be on U.S. currency, her image has to be “chaperoned” by a White President. Some see this as a slap in the face, while others are just happy anybody of color is finally on paper currency. Okay, fine.
But let's not sugar-coat the actual problem.
Andrew Jackson was sworn into office in 1829. At the time, Harriet Tubman was seven years old, eating daily beatings while playing as housemaid and nanny to her then owner's baby. During Jackson's tenure in office from 1829 to 1837, he signed over 70 treaties with several different nations of Native Americans, only to go back on his word, setting off a chain of reactions that led to the Trail of Tears and the Second Seminole War, the first Seminole War Jackson had a big role in the creation of, just a few short years before he was sworn into office. His reckless behavior and choice of friends and eventually cabinet members, also sparked the Black Hawk and Second Creek wars respectively, leading to the blatant extermination and annexation of more than a dozen nations. It was all part of his Indian Removal plan, His double-crossing practice of signing a treaty only to send an army after the heads of those he signed with, leads to the joke of him being on a now two-faced bill.
During those same, blood soaked years, Jackson not only upheld slavery, but he tried to dismantle the First Amendment in doing so. How you ask? Simple.
Between 1835 and 1836, a number of abolitionists began sending petitions, letters and pamphlets through the mail, denouncing slavery and asking that Americans urge their congressmen and the president to abolish slavery. When word broke out about the tracts, pro-slavery terrorists began storming post offices throughout the country, destroying the tracts and obstructing the mail. Jackson not only supported the notion, he also demanded that the name of every abolitionist be posted publicly, along with their home addresses. He would later sign into law restrictions on what could be sent through the mail, to the point where only subscribers could receive the tracts, and postal workers who agreed with slavery, did not have to do their job to mail that which offended them.
A second slight came in the form of Texas becoming a state. Jackson had originally tried to purchase Texas from Mexico to the tune of $5000, but Mexico initially refused. But by 1836, pro-slavery supporters had made up their own band and had pretty much taken over Texas. Though Jackson tried to deny recognition of the state at first, a political game he played with friend and cabinet member Martin Van Buren. Once he was assured Van Buren ~ a man he later admitted to choosing because he needed “someone to control” ~ he not only acknowledged Texas as a state, he also voiced his support of their pro-slavery stance.
On the flip-side of the $20 bill, we have Harriet Tubman. Former slave who not only fought against everything Jackson's party seemed to support in regard to minorities, but a suffragette, who spent the last decades of her life fighting for a woman's right to vote, while also providing shelter and care for the sick and elderly.
Even in Christianity, the two couldn't possibly be more opposite. While Andrew Jackson would preach about his idea of good virtues learned from the Bible, he used the Presbyterian church for political matters and for saving face in his post-presidential years, while moonlighting as a Freemason, Harriet Tubman helped to grow the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, but only on the condition that a parcel of the land be used as a shelter for the elderly and those who were poor.
While it was no surprise to see Jackson's face on banknotes in 1869, today is a different day, in need of a more positive face on our currency, one that is not mired in controversy and race-based war mongering.
The choice of Harriet Tubman for the $20 bill is a positive first start in bringing equality to our currency, and as a historical icon, she is a great role model and perfect choice for the modern era. But to have her image chaperoned by the president who kept her enslaved as a child is at best an absurd oversight, and at worst, mean-spirited, supporting the ideology that you can't have a strong, Black woman, without having her being controlled.
Koriander Bullard is an author, cartoonist and human rights advocate. Keep up with her on Facebook!