Back in February, before COVID-19 struck and the world shut down, I was in Washington, D.C., with a few hours to spare before a class. I found myself in the National Gallery of Art, staring at an 1845 portrait of President Andrew Jackson that looked eerily familiar.
Then, it occurred to me. I’d seen that portrait countless times on the $20 bill.
A quick Google search reveals that the artist, Thomas Sully, has a Native American line of descendants who were quite pleased when then-Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced five years ago this month that a woman would be featured on the $10 bill. Those plans changed due to the confluence of two factors: the surging popularity of Alexander Hamilton on the heels of the wildly successful musical about his life, and a previous grassroots campaign to place a prominent historical woman on the $20 bill by 2020 to honor the one hundredth anniversary of woman suffrage.
And who was chosen overwhelmingly by that grassroots Women on the 20s campaign? Harriet Tubman, the heroic Underground Railroad conductor, the “Moses of her People.”
So there I stood in the Smithsonian, blocks from the White house, staring at that painting of Andrew Jackson and thinking about that old legal maxim: “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Delayed because current Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, at the direction of his boss, refused to implement planned changes and pushed off the redesign after President Donald Trump insisted the move amounted to “pure political correctness.”
Denied because this particular indignity — refusing to replace the image of a president who, as much as any other before or since embodied the value of white masculine supremacy, with that of Harriet Tubman — is a reminder of just how much the Trump presidency resembles that of Jackson’s.
Trump is, of course, a fan of Jackson’s and made a point of adding a portrait of the seventh president to the Oval Office soon after his inauguration.
In many ways, it reflects his own twisted self-image: that of liberator of white Americans from the multiculturalism of the Civil Rights Era through the Obama presidency and returning us to an imagined greatness of the 1950s when television cowboys shot Indians, a woman’s place was in the home (and certainly not on a $20 bill) and white people enjoyed the benefits of Jim Crow.
I’ve written in this column frequently on the subject of place, how a “new Jewish neighborhood” ought to embody different sensibilities of place and uplift our values of seeing each person as created in the image of God. I’ve written about how our Jewish community, whether in Reservoir Hill or beyond, should celebrate Civil Rights Era desegregation but also work assiduously to prevent the erosion of progress by racial justice movements.
We Jews know what it is to be displaced from our home and replaced by another civilization. There’s a story in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 3a) in which Rabbi Yosi enters the ruins of the Temple mount in Jerusalem to pray. There, he hears a voice “cooing like a dove.” In the story, the prophet Elijah explains that the voice cries out three times every day and even “when Jews enter synagogues and study halls.”
The restoration of the Jewish people to its ancestral homeland is worth celebrating. The restoration of Native Americans to sovereignty in theirs is unlikely to occur anytime soon. But coexistence need not be synonymous with erasure.
Among Andrew Jackson’s many sins was his slaughter and displacement of Native American peoples. Liberating the $20 bill from his image is a worthy goal. But we can also be more attentive to the very ground on which we stand.
In some places in the world (and in the U.S.), it has become common to acknowledge native lands that were forcibly taken by European and American settlers. Doing so does not right past wrongs, but it honors the history of place and those Native Americans who dwell among us.
All Baltimore Jewish communities are established on the land of the Piscataway-Conoy Tribe. Their house was destroyed by people who thought the color of their skin and the money in their coffers made them better.
Who among us is listening to the voice crying out from the ruins of Baltimore?
A version of this post appears in the June 2020 issue of Jmore