Thoughts & Views: Make symbols ‘teachable moments’

7-1 Op_webSometimes, we pay more attention to symbols than we do about how we behave as a society but that is because it is a lot easier to attack something rather than try to engage someone in dialogue over our differences.

We haul down a flag that we find offensive, deface a banner if we don’t like its message or rip up a campaign poster of someone running for office we don’t like.

In the case of the Berlin Wall – labeled the “Iron Curtain” by the West and “antifascist protector” by the East – many defectors risked their lives – and some were killed – trying to scale it. It stood for nearly three decades before it was dismantled by those who put in in place, thereby reunifying Germany.

Today, two other symbols have captured the attention of our nation: the Confederate flag and the faces we put on our paper money.

It took a terrible tragedy – the slaughter of nine innocent African-Americans in the historic A.M.E. Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. – to galvanize the governor to call for the removal, from the capitol, of the flag to which 11 Southern states pledged loyalty in seeking separation from the Union.

It has been 150 years since that battle was lost but tributes to that cause remain throughout the South in the form of the rebel flag at Civil War veterans’ grave sites and embedded on license plates, as are the names of Confederate generals on street signs and schools.

It will be up to the legislators of South Carolina and their constituents to determine if the governor’s admonition is to be carried out – if a symbol in which so much pride has been invested – is ready to be retired from the seat of government.

Let us hope that this controversy will lend itself to productive discussions in social studies and history classes in the Palmetto State’s public schools.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which prints our currency, has announced plans for a redesign of our $10 bill and that new look will feature the image of “a woman who was a champion for our inclusive democracy ….” By law, the image must be of someone deceased.

That new $10 note is to be unveiled in 2020, to coincide with the centennial anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment to the Constitution that granted women the vote.

Reportedly, the leading contender for that honor is Harriet Tubman, described by Wikipedia as an African- American who escaped slavery and worked for the Union, using the Underground Railroad to help rescue some 70 enslaved family and friends, and nursed wounded Union soldiers. She helped John Brown recruit volunteers for his raid on Harpers Ferry and, later, was a supporter of woman’s suffrage.

This is how she was rewarded for her service: Returning by train to her home in Auburn, N.Y., after the war, Tubman was muscled out of her seat by the conductor and two passengers, who broke her arm and caused more injuries throwing her into the smoking car. Denied a government pension for her service during the war until 1899, Tubman spent most of her life in poverty.

Treasury has pledged to retain the $10 “incumbent” Alexander Hamilton as “part of the $10 note,” but hasn’t yet explained how. In a series of changes between 1914 and 1928, Hamilton replaced Jackson on the $10 note; Jackson bumped Grover Cleveland off the $20 note; and Cleveland ended up on the $1,000 note in place of Hamilton.

The website Womanon20s. com has advocated for a woman’s portrait to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill because of Jackson’s “mistreatment of Native Americans, involvement in the slave trade and hatred of paper currency.”

So far, Treasury has remained silent on that premise, except to say that the $10 note was prioritized for redesign to thwart possible “counterfeit threats.”

What’s an engraver to do? The other day, a protestor climbed the capitol flagpole in Charlestown and took down the Confederate flag. It was quickly restored to await action by the state lawmakers. Well, maybe we’ll see other protestors burning Jackson $20 bills. And then again, by the time that happens, maybe it won’t be worth the paper it’s printed on.

Some symbol it will be then.

– Ron Leir 

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