The Truest Blood Money

The recent decision to place Harriet Tubman on U.S. currency is a wonderful step in the right direction, but arguably less for the selection of the legendary slave-freeing Tubman, and more for whose disappearance from currency this occasion marks: Andrew Jackson. Honoring Tubman--as we rightfully should--uplifts values we already claim to hold. To be frank, it shouldn't be a brave act.

As a nation, our clutch on "heritage" is, in part, a symptom of our young age, but the young-nation argument is a tired defense trotted out as an escape from cognitive dissonance. It's important to understand that we can't have level ground to start honest discussions about race politics so long as Andrew Jackson, who held hundreds of slaves and is responsible for the Indian Removal Act (ruled unconstitutional even by the Supreme Court in his own time) and the notorious Cherokee Trail of Tears, is on our currency.

Thus, replacing Jackson is a difficult rejection of cognitive dissonance. Progress is often heralded for its forward movements, but forward movements cannot occur without rejecting their antithesis--one cannot truly embrace love without eschewing hate, much as replacing a boat's tattered flag does nothing about the anchor keeping it ashore.

There is a simple exercise for anyone who disagrees with this assessment: simply try to think of any other historical figure who committed similar crimes, in any other nation--and imagine them on that nation's modern currency. Of course, every genocide is different in scope, scale, and nuance, but as an exercise, you will quickly find that Josef Stalin is not on the Russian ruble, nor Vlad the Impaler on the Romanian leu. It is absurd to imagine.

And yet, no "erasure" of their history has happened. Their histories are taught in schools outside of their home countries. Their Wikipedias overfloweth. The idea that atrocities must be remembered in the form of statues and currency is a disingenuous argument: atrocities are remembered, full stop.

What really disappears when we remove Confederate flags? What vanishes when stone slavers move from town squares to museums? The cognitive dissonance. What is missing is the painful, self-harming balancing act of praise and condemnation in the same breath.

Imagine, fellow white people, what it must be like to be a person of color sitting in a classroom and learning about the blight of Andrew Jackson. Imagine learning the details of his atrocities. The countless slaves on his properties. The countless indigenous peoples dying painful, prolonged deaths. The erasure of their culture.

Then, imagine breaking for lunch, and pulling out bills at the register with the faces of men like Andrew Jackson.

Better yet, don't imagine. Listen.

In the end, it comes down to a difficult truth: cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable. It represents more than holding two opposing viewpoints, because those two viewpoints hold root in separate belief systems. In this instance, a white person simply does not know what it's like to grow up in a society that teaches of the massacring of non-whites by such men in school, while revering them on our currency. But we do know that it is wrong.

And that's the great thing about cognitive dissonance. It's a good pain. The pain that tells us we're growing. It's a deep, lingering pain, like growing in adult teeth. And sometimes, you gotta just rip the old ones clean out.


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