Coates on Tubman on Money?

Harriet Tubman is replacing Andrew Jackson as the new face of the third most common U.S. currency note in circulation (and most commonly counterfeited). The design will be made public by 2020, and banknotes will reach circulation in the next decade.

Naturally the Five Kings of Darkness and the Manichaean Answer-God are wrestling on the Column of Information Internet’s bouncing around like a dryer with a brick in it on a trampoline.

Tressie McMillan Cottom bets wisely on the ramifications of Treasury’s about-face:

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 12.54.05 PM

While we wait for (Ta-Nehisi) Coates On Tubman On money to drop, we can read Coates On Jacob Lawrence On Tubman-as-Badass.

Jacob Lawrence:


Ta-Nehisi Coates:

“I recently finished Kate Larsen’s excellent biography of Harriet Tubman–Bound For The Promised Land. Tubman, like any mythical figure has had her exploits elevated beyond actual events. But even in Larsen’s historical telling she emerges as a super-heroic figure. It’s true she didn’t shepherd 200 slaves out of Maryland. The number was more like 70–which is to say, given the logistics, a lot.

At any rate, I’ve done a lot of thinking on the place of myth in African-American history. Django aside, we don’t really have many avenging angels. Reviewing the primary documents of the time, I don’t even detect much taste for mass vengeance. There’s often a taste for particular vengeance on particular people, but more than anything there’s a strong desire to be left the fuck alone. Actions, like absconding with oneself, are usually set in motion by the threat of sale and the disruption of family ties. At first I was surprised by the lack of race hatred. But when I thought about it, it makes sense.

Race hatred among whites was not irrational devolution. On the contrary it served an actual political purpose–defining the borders of citizenship, manhood and the broadest aristocracy ever created. Race hatred among blacks is just vengeance. It doesn’t really go anywhere. It doesn’t offer access to anything you didn’t have before. Even if you look at the actual ideology of black nationalists what you will find more than “Kill Whitey” is “Leave us the fuck alone.” Whereas integrationists wanted to be left alone here as Americans, separatists wanted to be left alone elsewhere. But both wanted to left alone.
That said, the black freedom movement isn’t faultlessly benign. Above is painting from Jacob Lawrence’s awesome series on Harriet Tubman. It takes as inspiration Tubman’s famous aphorism–“Dead niggers tell no tales.” (Yes that’s Harriet Tubman, not DMX.) Tubman was known, on at least one occasion, to force an escaped slave forward at gun-point. The point was practical–should the slave return he would be tortured, and give up Tubman’s methods. What I love most about this piece is how the man is shielding his face from the freedom that lay before him, or perhaps mourning the friends, and possibly family, he’s left behind.
Freedom must have been scary for these peoples. Tubman says when she first escaped, she felt like a man who’d been let out jail after long bid. There was no one there to greet her. No home to return to. She had to make her way alone. And she did–along with a lot of others.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Myth of Harriet Tubman,” The Atlantic, January 3, 2013
Interesting development, America! Slaveholding genocideer who hated paper money for former slave, abolitionist, and women’s suffrage advocate who was granted a soldier’s $25 monthly pension by the House in 1899 for her service during the Civil War, only to have it whittled down to $20 by the Senate by the time President McKinley signed the bill?
Perhaps futile, as from 2020-30 we’ll all be burning 1,000,000 Drumpfenmark notes for warmth, those of us who don’t purchase thermal security directly from GazTrumprom.
Switzerland, meanwhile, has a leading dadaist on their 50 Franc note:
And a woman, to boot! More about Sophie Tauber-Arp.
Otherwise, it’s Wednesday, coincidentally payday in my neck of the woods, and Awesome Tapes From Africa is my rock.
Hailu Mergia “Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument” (ATFA006). Listen to “Shilela” here – for some reason, the embed’s not working properly.
About the artist:

“Hailu Mergia is a one-man band.

In 1985, master accordionist and veteran bandleader, arranger and keyboardist released the Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument cassette. In a nostalgic effort to bring back the vintage accordion sound of his youth, Hailu gave Ethiopian music a sonic makeover. He was already celebrated for his work with the groundbreaking Addis Ababa ethio-jazz and funk outfit Walias Band. With imagination and a visionary sense of the self-contained possibilities of modern music, he captured the popular sounds of the past using the modern tools of the day.

Hailu Mergia weaves Moog DX7 synthesizer, Rhodes electric piano and rhythm machine into the rich harmonic layering of his accordion, creating hauntingly psychedelic, elegantly arranged instrumentals. These tunes draw from famous traditional and modern Ethiopian songs, as Hailu brilliantly matches lush Amhara, Tigrinya and Oromo melodies with otherworldly flavors soaked in jazz and blues, synthesizing a futuristic landscape. He balances Ethiopian music’s signature melodic shape with beautiful analog synth touches, floating upon clouds of hypnotically minimal rhythm tracks.”

– Awesome Tapes From Africa

4 thoughts on “Coates on Tubman on Money?

  1. I like this story – connected to the symbolism of putting Tubman on the $20

    Tubman had asked the New York abolitionist Oliver Johnson for money to help her parents, who were still held as slaves in Maryland. When he refused, Tubman camped out in his office:

    “Twenty dollars? Who told you to come here for twenty dollars?”

    “De Lord tole me, sir.”

    “Well, I guess the Lord’s mistaken this time.”

    “I guess he isn’t, sir. Anyhow I’m gwine to sit here till I git it.”

    So she sat down and went to sleep. All the morning and all the afternoon she sat there still, sleeping and rousing up—sometimes finding the office full of gentlemen—sometimes finding herself alone. Many fugitives were passing through Now York at that time, and those who came in supposed that she was one of them, tired out and resting. Sometimes she would be roused up with the words, “Come, Harriet, you had better go. There’s no money for you here.” “No, sir. I’m not gwine till I git my twenty dollars.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. surprisingly (given his research into the econ of housing and slavery) TNC is pretty weaksauce on capitalism, I think in part perhaps he is wary of recent academic trends to look at class before race in many political matters but still a striking void in his thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cornel West might agree and might say Coates is “weaksauce” on other things, too: “analysis of capitalist wealth, inequality, gender domination, homophobic degradation, imperial occupation … and collective fight-back (not just personal struggle).” – but while class/capitalism are mineable within TNC’s texts, he’s predominantly a scholar on race. My takeaway is that the problems of unregulated capitalism aren’t the same as the problems of legal theft – of African American lives, education, opportunity, land, labor, and so on – and white supremacy. Not a striking void, a different (and necessary) voice telling a different part of the story to a different intended audience.


  3. I know he’s been trying to educate himself in these matters and that’s a big gap to try and fill in (while working, parenting, etc) and when he sticks to reporting (sadly less and less over time) he has some very useful/insightful moments but I don’t think there is a historical difference between capitalism (has never been unregulated, and really couldn’t exist without some governed modes of property, contracts, etc) and the kinds of legal theft that you list (google How Slavery Led To Modern Capitalism for example), exploitation of other peoples’ labor/resources is fundamental.
    as for C.West see:


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