By Dare Babarinsa
After more than 150 years of waiting, an African-American face is finally going to adorn an American dollar bill. Two weeks ago on April 20, the American Treasury Department announced that the portrait of Harriet Tubman, heroine of the American Civil War, former slave and freedom fighter, would be on the new 20 dollar bill. She is to replace President Jackson whose reputation in recent times has fallen. The reaction across America has been that of overwhelming support for Tubman as an authentic heroine and her exploits the stuff of legends. Her story has a great significance for all Black people and people of African descent all over the world. It is a lesson for us in Nigeria about the place of heroes and great people in the continuous and never ending task of nation-building.
Americans love heroes. No city portrays this better than Washington D.C (District of Colombia), the capital of the American Federation. The city itself was named after George Washington, the country’s first president who led the war of independence against Great Britain. At the time he was leading the United States, monarchy was in vogue all over the world. But Washington, instead of becoming King George the First of the United States, preferred to be the President with limited tenure, depriving his descendants the right to that exalted office. After serving for eight years as President, he retired, yielding the office to John Adams, another towering hero of the American War of Independence.
I was once admitted into the sanctum of the American Congress building in Washington DC. In a city of monuments, the Congress holds a special place. We were taken to see the dome, the holy of holies of this shrine of democracy. In the ceiling were the faces of great Americans painted in the hollow of the dome in brilliant frescos. There, you could easily pick out the faces of Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and other immortals. The only black face in that celestial gathering was that of the Revered Martin Luther King, Jr, the great human right campaigner and hero of African-American right activism who was assassinated in Memphis in 1968 at 39. We were told that the statue on top of the dome was that of the Native-American potentate whose ethnic group once owned Washington DC before it was seized by White colonialists.
A country that tolerates greedy senators and their love of SUVs in these perilous times, which allows youths to volunteer regularly for slavery in Europe and other places, is a country, indeed, ripe for a revolution.Not far from the Congress Building is the Lincoln Monument, another edifice of great significance to the career of Tubman. Abraham Lincoln was President of the United States between 1860 and 1865 when he was assassinated. He was President during a period of great upheavals when the American constitution was tested on the battle field during the Civil War between the Unionists led by Lincoln and the Confederate states of the South led by the legendary General Robert E. Lee.
The Unionists wanted an end to slavery. The Confederates wanted every state to have the right to decide whether to continue with slavery or not. President Lincoln believed the American Constitution supports the right of the Federal Government to abolish slavery across the country. His opponents would not agree claiming that every state joined the union freely and had the right to pull out. War was joined and the Confederate Army was defeated. Slavery was abolished across the United States.
Harriet Tubman knew slavery for she was born into slavery in 1822 and suffered greatly as a young slave in Dorchester County, Maryland. In 1849, she escaped to Philadelphia where she joined the abolitionist movement and became prominent in its underground army. She was able to make more than 13 missions to Maryland where she helped hundreds of slaves, including her close relations, to freedom. It was because of her action that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed. She also helped many slaves escape to Canada. If she had been captured, she would not have escaped death by hanging.
But nothing could deter this great fighter for freedom. She was later to join the Union Army, serving as cook, armed spy and later as a soldier. She led and guided the armed expedition on Combahee Ferry which freed more than 700 slaves. After the Civil War, she retired to New York, but she remained a towering and inspiring figure nationally for the Civil Rights and Woman Rights movement. Yet despite her efforts, the American society remained lacerated by institutionalised racism and discrimination. Martin Luther King Jr, Elijah Mohammed, Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young and many others were direct descendants of Tubman in activism. It is heart-warmingly fitting that Barracks Obama, the first African-American to be elected President of the United States, is in the saddle when Tubman is surfacing on the $20 dollar bill. This honour is a poignant reminder that for the great ones, there is always life after death.
For us in Africa, the home continent of most of the slaves, Tubman’s honour has special significance. Africans, especially those living in West, Central and East Africa, were the victims of slavery for more than 400 years. Many young people from the East Coast were transported in chains across the Indian Ocean to serve as slaves in the present Middle East, especially in Saudi Arabia where their descendants are still living till today. But the worst was happening across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans where West Africans were taken in their millions to work as slaves on the plantations in North and South America and the Caribbean islands. In doing this, African rulers were the greatest collaborators. For instance, after the collapse of old Oyo in 1835, Yoruba land convulsed in a senseless civil war that lasted till the armistice of 1886. This provided more wares for the slave markets. Who knows whether Tubman ancestors may have come from Yoruba land?
Today African slavery is local and glamourised. Recently the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria announced that the 36 SUVs it bought for some selected members of the upper Legislative House cost only N35 million apiece. We were told the cost was not inflated, but our senators were mindful of the pains the people are going through, the hunger in the land, their love for the rest of us who queue to vote in the rain, in the sun and in inclement weather and those among us who were ensnared by stomach infrastructure. If not, each senator would have been presented with his own toy. It would take another employee of the Federal Government, who is not a senator, on a minimum wage of N18,000.00 per month, 163 years to earn enough money to buy one of the Senator’s cars. Slavery redefined.
No wonder our youths are responding dramatically to the sirens of new slavery. No longer would the slave masters need to come here with their ships, their gunners and chains, armed with their gins, gold and gun powder to bribe our Kabiyesi and other members of the rotten ruling class. Everyday now, sons and daughters of Africa, bribe, fight and pay whatever cost to go to the slave market of the Western world, offering their skills and their youths. They go by all means, trekking across the Sahara Desert, facing the turbulence of the Mediterranean Sea. They run the gauntlets everyday and voluntarily offer their services in the slave markets.
African leaders need to think of Tubman and offer our youths new and more reasons why we must re-discover the God of freedom in Africa. Our leaders should offer more than hope to the youths. Our people need freedom from poverty, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Without these, there is no freedom from slavery. A country that tolerates greedy senators and their love of SUVs in these perilous times, which allows youths to volunteer regularly for slavery in Europe and other places, is a country, indeed, ripe for a revolution.