Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Jackson-Tubman Thing

This is kind of interesting. The South is apparently rising again (again?) over news that the portrait of Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill will be replaced with Harriet Tubman sometime in the next four-five years. Supposedly, this is an insult to Jackson, and by extension to the South and all it stands for -- whatever that may be. Southern white men -- especially -- are incensed. Poor things.

Jackson is seen as a heroic figure by many of them, and it is precisely for the kinds of things his critics have condemned him for since forever: he was a racist, a slave owner-trader, a Indian killer in acts that amount to genocide, and he was a prime advocate of Indian Removal. He is considered by most observers to be responsible for the Trail of Tears on which so many Native Americans were ignominiously sent West -- too many of them to their deaths.

It gets interesting because Ms. Ché, a Cherokee Nation citizen, thought there was more to the story than we were being told. No matter the tales of Jackson's evil that she'd been hearing all her life, she thought there must be something redeeming in him and that his acts -- deplorable as they were -- weren't as one-dimensional as they had been made out to be.

We'd been to Nashville a few times together, and I found I didn't like it much at all. Nashville struck me as not just the South but the Bad South, some of the worst aspects of Southern Tradition were alive and well, and there was very little "Good South" to mitigate it.

Ms. Ché , on the other hand, was quite taken with the place and the people, and she's been back several times on her own. The last time she was there, she decided to go out to Andrew Jackson's plantation, The Hermitage, and see for herself just what this man done on his own land, and try to get a sense of his spirit.

She toured the mansion and rode what they call a slave wagon (a cotton transport wagon) around the grounds. She heard the stories they tell there of his life and times -- both good and bad. She researched on her own too. She came back home and said, "You know, I think they've got Jackson wrong. He wasn't quite the monster he's made out to be."

I was kind of stunned at her point of view. What about the Trail of Tears and all the suffering he caused her own people? She said, "He wasn't directly involved in that at all. It came after he left the White House."

I said that if it hadn't been for Jackson, Indian Removal probably wouldn't have become national policy. She disagreed. She said it probably would have --  and it might have come sooner and more brutally than it did if it hadn't been for Jackson's interventions.

Whoa! Talk about historical revisionism!

Where did she get these ideas? Her point of view was that Jackson was very conflicted about the Indian Question, and he had a lot of respect for Indians at a time when white folks were expected to hate them and kill them whenever they could. He may have believed that the only solution to the Indian Problem was for them to leave for the West, but he might not have believed that if the popular sentiment among white folks at the time hadn't been so racist, greedy and bloodthirsty. He himself, she said, was not like that.

He wasn't? No, she said, not really. He'd let himself become seen as a heroic Indian fighter and Indian hater, and he felt guilty about it and about what he had done. He would much rather have found an accommodation with the tribes than try to force them out of their ancestral lands. But it wasn't possible, for one thing because the white-trash rabble that coveted Indian lands wouldn't allow it. Nothing less than annihilation was satisfactory to them.

She talked about Rachel, his wife. The plantation slaves. The Indians. She said so much of the Black Legend of Jackson is false. The truth is much more complicated.

She said she knew she was supposed to harbor resentment and hatred toward Jackson, but she didn't feel that way about him. For one thing, she didn't believe such feelings were healthy. But for another, she insisted he wasn't the monster his critics made him out to be. He'd been falsely portrayed for many a long year.

Hm. Well, I can't say I'm convinced. I tend to think that Jackson represented and represents some of the worst and most destructive aspects of White America. He was sort of the epitome of White racism, resentment, violence and greed, living off the backs of his slaves and the theft of Indian land. He may or may not have had redeeming qualities, I wouldn't know, but too many people suffered too much due to his actions, beliefs and policies for him to be considered anything but a monstrous figure in American history -- at least to my eye.

When news came that the Treasury Department had decided to replace Jackson with Tubman on the $20 bill, I thought it was symbolic but fine. I didn't see it as denigration or denunciation of Jackson but as one way to honor Tubman. Jackson, ultimately, would not be affected by this move at all. He would still be honored by those who considered him a hero, denounced by his critics. That would not change by putting someone else's portrait on the $20 bill.

Ms. Ché saw the move as an unnecessary aggravation at a time when domestic animosity and factionalism has reached a fever pitch in this country. She has no problem with honoring Tubman, just that doing it this way at this time may be unwise.

It won't be done for at least four years, and by that time who knows how the national conscience and consciousness will have changed? This is far from the most important issue we face or will face, but knowing how sensitive some people have become about every perceived slight, and how resentful and violent some become, it's certainly conceivable that the Outrage!!!!™ this move precipitates could lead to yet more civil unrest among the under-appreciated white folks of this country.

On the other hand, there has been far too much bending over backwards to mollify the South for far too long and far too much tolerance for the violence that ensues.

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