Sign of the Times: Stanton, Tubman, and Trump
By Jacqueline Battalora
Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice
Saint Xavier University
Former Chicago Police Officer
Prince captured highlights of 1980s U.S culture in the 1987 song, Sign O The Times, from the Challenger explosion to gangster disciples, crack and other drug use, from media coverage of death and killing to the pressure to get married and have a child. His song captures the signs of the times even while Prince challenged the cultural norms with a fluidity that transgressed musical genre, sex and gender, and race. He left fans and consumers of his art dancing with the ambiguity.
The week of Prince’s death saw not only the loss of a genius but the escalation of an unprecedented presidential primary after New York held its primary. The week was also notable for the announcement by the U.S Department of Treasury that changes to currency are coming. Images of people on currency serve to honor valued leaders and likely say more about the current moment than about the past. Just as the current presidential primary races are full of insight into the anxieties, hopes, and ideals of the varied people of these United States, the selection of people who don our currency suggest symbolic needs.
By 2020, the American humanitarian who escaped slavery and became a leading abolitionist, Harriet Tubman will be on the front side of the 20 dollar bill. She was also a spy and an armed scout for the Unites States Army during the Civil War. She represents the best of American heroism. She represents still more. Her brown skin and her gender are in stark contrast to the long line of white men upon our paper currency who have held a monopoly upon those representing U.S. values and history.
The back of the 10 dollar bill shall have a number of new faces all of whom are women who advocated for women’s suffrage and most of whom were abolitionists and one of whom was enslaved in New York before walking away and asking “Ain’t I A Woman.” The back of the 5 dollar bill shall have a famous contraltos who faced race-based exclusion in America, Marian Anderson; Eleanor Roosevelt; and Martin Luther King, Jr.
These changes unfortunately promote a black-white image of America, leaving to the sidelines the rich and varied array of people who have exemplified the best of America despite incredible challenges. Still, these changes on the horizon stand in stark contrast to the virtual monopoly on those whose accomplishments and images have represented this nation for hundreds of years.
Whiteness as usual has been confronted. Not only upon the faces we will see when pulling a dollar bill from our pocket but in the people who constitute “the people” of the nation. White people are projected to be a minority population within the U.S. by about 2044. The last two years have seen a threshold met, one marked by the bodies of black and brown men. Police departments in some major cities are examining civil rights violations and people in communities are chanting, proclaiming and demanding that Black Lives Matter. The Confederate flag is no longer the norm at southern state capitols.
The challenge to whiteness as usual has produced anxiety for many who perceive their culture and privilege threatened. And in this moment, a billionaire is running for president appealing to the common white man through Islamophobia, anti-Mexican rhetoric, misogyny and by tossing African Americans under the bus on the chance of gaining votes from white supremacists. He is loved for being a political outsider and for speaking what others (seemingly, white males not voting for Bernie) are thinking but dare not speak.
Trump’s rise as a presidential contender is not only a rejection of the traditional Republican Party but reflects anxiety about the America that is on the horizon. Trump and his followers grasp backward to a time when America was great for white men and not so much for the rest.
The signs of the time suggest that any such harkening back will be short lived. Instead, the nation’s path forward is one with greater inclusion, albeit at a slow pace, not only by virtue of representation but also by virtue of the people within the most powerful positions in America and those running for it.
The musical icon, Prince is gone. While we mourn the loss of a national treasure, perhaps we can be somewhat comforted by reclaiming the memory of one of the world’s greatest voices of the 1930s and ‘40s and the rich contributions of the many American women who will be the face of a U.S. dollar bill for years to come.