“I saw slaves whupped till de blood run down dere backs. Once dey whupped some on de plantation and den put salt on de places and pepper on ‘em. I didn’t think nuthin in de world o’ slavery. I think de it wus wrong.” – Dorcas Griffeth
More than 12 million Africans were captured, bound and locked into the holds of slave ships where, packed in like sardines, they swam in their blood, sweat, urine and feces for the duration of the dreaded “middle passage” – the trans-Atlantic journey to the western hemisphere. About two million never made it. Their bodies were dumped unceremoniously overboard where sharks who trailed these ships gorged on the carcasses.
Those who arrived in the “new world” found lives of hard labor, privation and brutal torture. The fate of a rebellious enslaved African in South Carolina might be confinement in a large barrel nailed shut, and then punctured on all sides by long sharp spikes that ripped flesh and organs as it rolled past horrified black onlookers, all the while enveloped by the laughter of the overseers, and the shrieks of the dying prisoner.
Harriet Tubman, one of those enslaved, loved her people and justice too much to stand idly by. In thirteen expeditions she guided 70 enslaved Africans to freedom over what has come to be known as the Underground Railroad. She went on to do much more for the cause of freedom, and after many generations of Americans ignored her accomplishments, it has been announced that her likeness will grace the twenty dollar bill.
While the news has been greeted with enthusiasm by many, others—particularly those with a keen interest in racial justice—have questioned whether Tubman herself would have been pleased.
She was a fiercely religious woman. Perhaps she would have taken a cue from Jesus, who when handed a coin, asked: “Whose likeness is this?” When told it was Caesar’s picture on the coin, he responded: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” If handed the current twenty dollar bill, Tubman would see the image of Andrew Jackson, a notorious, unprincipled, slave-holding racist who engineered forced relocation of Native Americans and the theft of their territories.
She would certainly not want to become the new face of any part of that legacy.
Nevertheless, she might well favor having her image on the bill if there were a willingness to abide by Jesus’ instruction and render unto Tubman’s people that which belongs to Tubman’s people. If account is taken of the value of the uncompensated labor of enslaved Africans as well as that provided by those caught up in post-slavery convict-leasing, then literally trillions in Tubman twenty dollar bills should be delivered to the descendants of these victims as reparations. Add to that the value of discrimination suffered during the Jim Crow era, as well as the ongoing oppression and death associated with racially-motivated police violence and mass incarceration.
As part of our efforts to achieve racial equality, the ACLU of Michigan believes strongly that reparations should be paid to the descendants of the Africans stolen to America’s shores. For us, it’s a matter of justice.
Likewise, Harriet Tubman wanted nothing less than justice, and those who love and respect her should spare nothing in the pursuit of it through agitation for all appropriate and available civil rights protection. However, she might also wonder whether even full civil rights as defined by her tormentors and oppressors are adequate to meet the justice needs of her people. Perhaps she would favor abolishing altogether a system that continues to oppress.
After all, it was Harriet Tubman who said: “Never wound a snake; kill it.”
Mark Fancher is the racial justice attorney for the Michigan ACLU