- Black Women in Slavery and Freedom:Gendering the History of Racial Capitalism
In recent years, a curious debate has emerged over proposals to amend the national currencies of the United States, England, and Canada by featuring prominent black women. In 2015, President Barack Obama announced his intention to substitute Harriet Tubman for Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew set a deadline of 2020 for circulating the revised Tubman notes, but these lofty plans stalled following Donald Trump's 2016 election. Steven Mnuchin told Congress that Tubman would not make her debut until at least 2028, if at all.1 Trump's reluctance to print "politically correct" currency reflects broader white hostility to any displacement of white men from the pantheon of American founders.
British legislators recently advocated adding Mary Seacole to the fifty-pound note, following the Bank of England's decision to introduce a more secure polymer currency in 2020. Seacole was a Jamaican-born British nurse and entrepreneur who established the "British Hotel" for sick and wounded soldiers during [End Page 277] the Crimean War. Seacole used, in part, herbal healing techniques borrowed from her mother, a free woman of color in Jamaica who was known as "The Doctoress." She topped a BBC survey of "Greatest Black Britons" in 2004, and a statue of her likeness was unveiled across from the Houses of Parliament in 2016. As for Seacole gracing any British currency, however, the Bank has yet to make a final determination.2 Canada, by contrast, successfully introduced a new ten-dollar bill in 2018 featuring Viola Desmond, who was arrested and prosecuted for challenging racial segregation in 1940s Nova Scotia.3 The acknowledgment of "Canada's Rosa Parks" was welcome in some circles, but it also served to mute criticism of antiblack racism north of the American border. Formal recognition of Desmond does little to ease contemporary segregation, police violence, and premature death for black Canadians.4 This reminds us to be wary of political demands that traffic in the liberal notion that diversifying chauvinist histories of the nation-state somehow constitutes reparative justice or emancipation. Currency is ideological. As bills pass through our fingers in exchange for goods and services, they quietly communicate a Whiggish tale of Western progress that dishonors the memory of ancestors and does harm to black people now. Acknowledging black women's historical significance by putting their faces on financial paper that originates in their ancestors' com-modification and exploitation is cruel irony. These representational gestures, by definition, cannot do justice to the complex, heroic, and tragic lives of black women negotiating the horrors of racial capitalism. Tubman was in but never of the West—she was a political stranger acutely aware of the fact that racialized force relations lurk behind the veneer of Western "civilization."
Attempts to uncritically incorporate black women into the nation-state from which their descendants remain formally and informally excluded—to recommodify those who were once literally commodities—is an unfortunate paradox lost on black currency boosters. They also amount to a narrow, selective engagement with black history or what we might call erasure by way of liberal inclusion. The earliest Afro-diasporic histories, of course, were not to be found in books. Stories of survival, kinship, and perseverance, as well as strategic silences, were passed down through generations in the form of oral traditions. Some intellectuals developed a range of archival practices that constitute the cornerstone of contemporary black...