For several years, I have refined and presented this idea to dozens of people, including politicians, academics, activists and perfect strangers: why don't we remove the symbols of racial oppression from our national currency? Admittedly, the response is often a confused look, followed by a visible thought process. Eventually, after discussion and expansion, the idea often seems no longer strange, and but rather quite natural and practically inevitable.
All it takes is a little thinking about the history of racial oppression. But that is not an easy subject. First, you have to talk about slavery, segregation, Jim Crow and lynching, which makes people of both African and European descent squirm. Second, you need to recognize it is not ancient history: slavery ended in 1865; lynching continued into the 1930s without one law passed against it; the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s secured the African American ability to vote (even though the right to vote happened earlier); and there was a Klan murder in Portland, Oregon in the 1980s.
Third, you have to be willing to challenge the mythology that what passes for history in the United States of America. There is the history taught from books, and the history taught to you by your elders. Differentiated experience of history is likely--partially--what accounts for the vast differences of opinion between black and white on matters of race in this country. Book-taught history skews time, and glosses over individual stories to produce generalities. It also serves as a sort of "creation myth" that explains, justifies, vilifies and glorifies, and creates a filter through which the present is viewed.
History as Myth
The mythology of the United States says that this land was "discovered" by brave adventurers; that this nation was founded as a democracy where all men are created equal, that it is the great democratic experiment, and that this democracy--unique in the history of humankind--was conceived, codified and implemented by great men who were visionary heroes.
The reality is that the land was inhabited when the Europeans arrived. At the time of the founding of the nation, the definition of the "men" who were equal was extremely limited, excluding all women; all people of African descent whether enslaved or living "free"; all Chinese immigrants (there were few other Asian immigrants at the time); all indentured white slaves and servants; and all indigenous people who inhabited the land prior to the arrival of the European invaders.
The truth is that the glorious document of the Constitution which codified the law of the land made provisions for and provided protection to the practice of capture and enslavement of African people, and consolidated rights and privileges "for whites only" - and only for a particular subset of white males. As for the stirring Declaration of Independence, half of the signers claimed ownership of other human beings. At best, the rights and privileges, freedom and "equality" are a promise, not a guarantee. They created a circle of elites which explains our subsequent history of social struggle, with entry into the circle as the prize.
To say that these men are excused because it was the norm of the times is to misstate the issue. In fact, less than 10% of the white males in the U.S. engaged in slavery, varying greatly from state to state and over time. At the time of the revolutionary war, the Abolitionist movement was already well under way. Particularly, the Quakers pointed out the irony of a war for independence waged by persons engaged in slavery.
Africans, both free and enslaved fought in the war on both sides, and both Britain and the U.S. granted legal freedom to thousands. This impetus toward freedom was articulated in various stirring appeals made by enslaved people requesting that the new independence--for which so many of them had fought--be extended to them as well. A similar appeal was made for the full independence and citizenship of women. There was a glimpse of a different nation.
Instead, the Abolitionist Movement wore on for more than 100 years. The founding moment of the nation of the United States was a missed opportunity to dismantle the brutal, systematic, legalized racial oppression of slavery. Instead, this decidedly un-American institution and practice lingered here longer than in nearly every other country. With the end of the world-wide slave trade, the U.S. implemented the even more perverted system of forced childbearing, creating a legacy of sexual oppression, incest and violent disruption of family and community connections.
The next missed opportunity was at the legal abolition of slavery following the Civil War--yet another war in which enslaved African peoples fought for their freedom, a heroic story worth telling. This was a victory for the Abolitionist Movement, an international coalition crossing race, religion, region, class and gender; the first citizen-based movement, creating the model for political activism. The fight for freedom of those suffering under slavery aroused a world-wide response of moral outrage and righteous indignation uniquely funneled through the political process, the pulpit, the newspaper and the novel, the song and the poem. The new technology of photography documented the horrors and ripped the blinders from ordinary folks who had come to accept slavery as an economic necessity, a social inevitability.
From this struggle, many heroes emerged. Yet, the struggle and eventual victory of the enslaved peoples of Africa and their descendants, the victory of the Abolitionist Movement--of the slave rebellions, escapees, Freemen, the Underground Railroad, the white allies, and the slaves who bought and paid for themselves, is nowhere recorded in a national monument, a coin or a bill, a holiday or a celebration. Instead, the monuments continue to be built glorifying the "founding fathers" even as the nation struggles out from under the burden they have left on our shoulders.
Even the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s, which included the lesser-known struggle of the Chicano movement, and other movements that followed for the full rights and the end of oppression for women, gay and lesbian people was in a sense a missed opportunity. Other groups were allowed in the circle; the circle of national inclusion was not really expanded. Since September 11, 2001, we have seen the resurgence of racism and religious bigotry. Surely, this is an ongoing struggle, and one that is surprisingly global in its scope and consistency. Perhaps it is the story of the United States, a nation born of the colonial escapades of Europe, an idea birthed at the height of empire-building and the genesis of religious evangelism which perverted Christ's mandate to spread the Gospel into permission to steal land and torture converts.
There are those who think we would not be the United States of America without the glory of the founding fathers, the founding documents and the mythology of The Revolution and the Great Men of our early history. It is difficult to face the religious hypocrisy, the "intellectual" gerrymandering, the outright lies. Much care is taken in protecting the reputation of our collective icons, as well as absolution for their moral cowardice, their spiritual hypocrisy and their willing ignorance, their greed and lack of courage. Challenging their legacy seems to be a repudiation of all that is "American."
Look closer. This forgiveness of the Great Men covers a multitude of sins, for the petty crimes cumulatively outweigh the great blunders. Forgiveness extends to all. Availing oneself of privilege - accrued through skin color, family ties, national origin--is the acceptable norm. Parlaying political power or religious rank into personal gain is as American as apple pie. As a people, the bar is lowered for what is tolerable behavior. White supremacy slinks below the surface, and erupts when the system is strained by war or economic downturn. It is little wonder we can not get past racism. We will not get past it until we acknowledge how it is imbedded in our national creation myth.
To be frank, the historical icons of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Mt. Vernon and Monticello are symbols of white supremacy and racial oppression as powerful as the Confederate flag, but acceptable because they were Great Men. Meanwhile, all things southern - the speech, food, music, traditions - are despised. The white South was never monolithic in its support of slavery, and consisted of more than just slavery. African Americans from the South share the stigma of the South, and the additional stigma of being a "Southern black." This is one of the great feats of cognitive dissonance our history accomplishes: glorifying the early presidents, while denying they were slave owners; and at the same time denigrating the South for slavery, as if it were some sort of regional anomaly and not a national endeavor codified in law and practiced by northerners and southerners alike.
This intentional blur of history also erases the fact that, more than region, religion, or any other characteristic, individual responses to slavery were personal. We are therefore denied the lessons of how to behave when confronted with a choice to courageously follow the right path, or to leave the fight to someone else and "get while the gettin' is good." All are painted with the same brush, which is inaccurate. Benjamin Franklin is one example of a man who owned--even marketed--human beings as slaves, though not as plantation workers. He was always conflicted, and open-minded. In his 40s, when one of his slaves ran away and met a white woman who taught him to read and play the violin, he reconsidered his opinions. He became an advocate for education of all children, opened black schools, and became prominently active in the abolitionist society in Philadelphia. He ran his subsequent campaigns on an anti-slavery platform.
To be fair, two of Franklin's slaves died while still legally his property. And others of the early presidents on our currency were conflicted, enough to make legislative attempts or personal statements against slavery. Jefferson's description of "having a wolf by the ears" describes the predicament of wishing to be extricated from the situation, but not knowing quite how. It took a cathartic Civil War; which only started the process of change, and remains ongoing. The ability to rectify, to change course, to make amends is another untold--and unfinished--story of U.S. history. It is a virtue sadly missing in our leaders who still get us into wars and can't seem to get out; and our national politics, where a change of heart is negatively labeled flip-flopping.
Again, we are at a time where flexibility, adaptability and the ability to incorporate new information and thoughtfully reconsider one's position is a trait we seek in our leaders. Still, we lag behind other nations who apologize for and attempt to rectify past injustices, who reach out across international borders to right wrongs and solve problems; who know we are all in this together.
We can't seem to let go of the myth of the glorious past and continue at the present to paint ourselves as a super-power, even as our fellow nations condemn our war-mongering and concentration camps, our disdain for law and arrogant refusal to participate in collective problem-solving for common problems. Younger people in the U.S. grow uneasy, knowing they are the first generation--ever--in the U.S. to face less opportunity, a lower life expectancy, and fewer opportunities, yet will be saddled with repaying an unprecedented national debt. As our status wanes internationally, the dollar falls, the trade deficit climbs, our nation is increasingly indebted and immigrants revolt in the street, some dig in their heels, fly their flags and loudly repeat the tired stories of the past.
Our Real Heroes
That is what our national symbols do--they tell stories about who we think we are and what values we hold dear. They tell us about our history and our heroes. They tell us about us. That us includes so many more stories now. There is no need to continue on with an inflated, glorified and skewed account of that moment in our history when a group of slave-trading elites raised an army with the rhetoric of independence to escape the colonial relationship with the British empire. The United States has far outgrown that conflict.
It has also outgrown those heroes that continue to appear on our currency, dominate our cultural landscape and overshadow more current, relevant heroes; as well as those heroic contemporaries of the "founding fathers" who fought the good fight of Abolition. A closer look at history would show that many "American" ideas and ideals were inherited from the native inhabitants of this land, or brought by non-English immigrants, borrowed from other nations or arose out of the struggle of the common people against the power elites. Methods of farming were well-established when the Europeans arrived. Representative government was strongly influenced by the Six Nations model. Nearly half of the nation was "acquired" in the Louisiana Purchase and the post-war annexation of Mexican territory.
Before it was the Southwest U.S.A., and was still Mexico, the residents had already perfected desert home-building, farming, land management and livestock practices that were adopted whole by the "new" elites; whites pushed west by the control of wealth and opportunity in New England, and the gridlock of slavery in the South. Slavery was not only bad for the Africans kidnapped and enslaved, and their descendants who inherited enslavement based on the law, it created an economic vacuum that eliminated the need for paid labor. It shaped the United States in ways that we barely comprehend because of the magnitude of the impact.
The people brought here from Africa - though unprepared for the journey and undertaking it against their will - brought with them their culture: food, medicines, songs, stories, wisdom, spirituality, skills and knowledge. The very reality of slavery created the impetus for communication "under the nose of the master" with language, posture, music. This legacy produced jazz and blues, true "American" creations born out of the Africans' struggle to survive an unprecedented incarceration, dehumanization and enslavement sanctioned by law and perpetuated by the full power of the federal government.
These forefathers and foremothers better define our modern-day nation, and the prevailing acknowledgement that our history has been a continued and ongoing struggle against bigotry, racism, oppression, exclusion and discrimination. It has taken this long to begin to live up to the rhetoric of those founding documents that were more prophesy than declaration. Now, our national symbols need to be updated to reflect that, including changing the images on our currency.
How would we achieve this? First, there would need to be an intent, a commitment to remove from our national currency the faces of individuals known to have engaged in the business of slavery. Legislation would be the most effective avenue for this national commitment. We could extend this endeavor to the national landscape, our physical environment. Community attempts to change the name of streets, buildings, schools, parks, libraries and other public places bearing the names of individuals known to have been engaged in the business of slavery would be supported, and we would refuse to use these names in the future.
Releasing the Past, Embracing the Future
This opens up incredible new opportunities to discover and acknowledge important images and heroes that uplift our national identity, that are inclusive of all that we are, and that do not insult or offend. We could use the likenesses of those who heroically defied unjust laws and confronted the status quo when change was needed; leaders who never held a government office; authors, scholars, artists, musicians, sports legends, inventors and astronauts. We could use images from the great diversity and beauty of our natural environment; rivers, mountains, endangered species. Events like the Louisiana Purchase, Gold Rush; the Treaty of Guadelupe, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Voting Rights Act could be memorialized. We could finally honor all of our history, all of our heroes, that which we value and hold dear.
We could use the discussion of our national symbols to finally accomplish the collective dialogue about race, and understand our differing views on who and what the United States is. Joining many other nations in the world, we could hold ourselves accountable for the injustices and atrocities of the past, and pledge not to repeat them by refusing to grant the highest honors solely to the slave-holding elite in our early history. This would affirm our commitment to live up to the high ideals of our founding documents, as well as international law, the great spiritual teachings and the dictates of common decency. We would then be ready to step into the 21st century unchained from distorted and romanticized notions of national identity, and take our place at the international grown-ups' table.