When news broke that Harriet Tubman, the iconic figure of black freedom in America, would grace the $20 bill, there was an explosion of various emotions, opinions, and false news.
One inaccuracy that made its rounds on social media is the notion that the above photo (left) features a young Harriet Tubman, and therefore should be used in place of the photos of her we’ve come to be familiar with. Some allude to the fact that it feels like a conspiracy to make her look bad by not using a more glamorous photo of her on U.S. currency. The popular meme that sparked this phenomenon reads:
“Bet they never show you this picture of Harriet Tubman Young and beautiful…They always show you the picture of her after she has been beaten and tortured yet still survived because she’s black!”
Except, it’s not actually Ms. Tubman on the photo, it is Lady Sara Forbes Bonetta. She too was a slave, but she wasn’t born into slavery. She became one in 1849 after her village, Oke-Odan, in the Egba section of Yoruba land, Nigeria, was raided by the Dahomey people of Benin, Africa. Sara was quickly rescued from slavery after she was given to Queen Victoria of Britain who kept her as a Goddaughter. The young Princess later married Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, a wealthy Victorian Lagos philanthropist.
The idea that there was such a widespread call for Tubman to appear better looking on the $20 bill is both understandable, and troubling. As black women continue to be reduced as less attractive by the mainstream and by some of our very own, we’ve become hypersensitive to the way we are depicted. We are in a constant battle to ensure that our image and the images of fellow black women are handled with care, and rightfully so.
But Harriet Tubman was no ordinary woman and glamour, wealth, and style aren’t a part of every woman’s backstory. She was born into slavery, so she likely endured beatings and torture early on. In fact, she was beaten so badly by her masters, she suffered from migraine headaches for much of her adult life. But her beatings weren’t enough to keep her enslaved. As we know, she not only reclaimed her own freedom, she returned back to dangerous territory countless times to free others.
So why is having her look “pretty” so important? It’s further proof that the image of black women is often scrutinized, dissected, and trivialized. We’ve been conditioned to believe that we have to look our best to be worthy of our humanity and praise. We have to appear attractive and well kempt around company. In this case, company means every non-black person who pulls her $20 bill out of their wallet.
Harriet Tubman’s photos tell her story—one of a woman who endured brutality and came out on the other side a strong woman with pride and dignity. Seeing her on the $20 bill in her true form is exciting, inspiring, and beautiful in and of itself.
So, no, Harriet Tubman doesn’t need to look glamorous on the $20 bill. She simply needs to appear as herself—a certified badass who is the beautiful image of freedom.