“Work, work, work, work, work, work”
-Rihanna ft. Drake
The year is 2020 and it’s the twenty-second day in the month of May. ‘US Billionaires got $434 billion richer since coronavirus pandemic began,’ blared a Fox Business headline. Bezos. Gates. Zuckerberg. Buffet. Elison. Those names appeared in various such articles documenting the surge in wealth of titans who dominate our technological spaces and our collective perspective on successful industry. People, it seems, who had a good idea and worked hard to make it a reality, worked hard to keep it going and have been rewarded for it. While some think it criminal that so much wealth should be held by just a few, others shrug and tell you, “They deserve it. They worked hard.” Hard work, in America, is a way of life, a moral position from which to view a person’s right to American-ness. If you’re not working hard, do you even deserve to live here?
“The U.S. is the Most Overworked Developed Nation in the World.” Even if this statement wasn’t buttressed by data, America’s current reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic would have laid it bare, evidenced by people demanding with guns in front of government buildings that workplaces reopen, that We the People be freed from this tyranny of not-work immediately before any comprehensive plans have been made to protect people from the virus. We are expected to die for work, it seems. Work and overwork is the American way.
But if work is demonstrative of good American-ness, and if our smartest workers are rewarded by stratospheric incomes, why are the poor so looked down upon, surviving as they do with so little? Why did Mitch McConnell pledge to scrap the $600 boost in weekly unemployment benefits when one must prove they worked to qualify for such aid? Why is there a pervading myth that black and brown people don’t want to work? Considering that enslaved African Americans worked for free for so very long in this country that so greatly values work, what remuneration is there for American descendants of enslavement who, we must agree, have generationally exceeded the threshold of this test of American identity that is working hard? If Bezos, Gates, Zuckerberg, Buffet, and Elison get $434 billion, where does that leave everyone else?
For black and brown-skinned people, even the mere protection of the state and federal government to which they pay taxes is not something they get for working hard. For being a descendant of the most American of Americans when it comes to work, George Floyd got kneed to death by policeman Derek Chauvin, a former colleague, while handcuffed, arms pinned by metal, and with three heavy policemen bearing down on him for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while onlookers begged them to stop, while Mr. Floyd pleaded for his life, pleaded with Mr. Chauvin that he couldn’t breathe, that he was hurting, and cried out for his dead mother. When George Floyd was finally very, very dead, a full two minutes and 53 seconds after he had become unresponsive, Mr. Chauvin took a break from this work of the state, the work of killing black people, and got off the neck of Mr. Floyd who was suspected only, incidentally, of maybe having paid a shopkeeper with a counterfeit $20 bill which he may or may not have known was fake—we’ll never know what he knew, nobody asked him and now he’s dead.
For an American twenty-dollar bill to bear such weight that possibly passing a counterfeit of it should merit a sentence to death by crushing, death by asphyxiation, death in public, death on camera for all eternity; for a twenty-dollar bill to be so important, we cannot be forgiven for imagining that it must bear a holy image, perhaps of God, or a saint steeped in miracles, the image of someone more American than hard-working enslaved black people. But it is not Harriet Tubman on the American $20 bill—an escaped enslaved woman who braved hunting dogs, disease, injury, racism, and enslavement to lead at least 70 other people to freedom, who worked for the Union Army as a spy among other roles helping to birth a unified America. No, it is instead a white man who owned slaves—Andrew Jackson. Getting other people to work for you and paying them nothing or very little is even more respectable, it seems, than doing work yourself.
Andrew Jackson—slaver, oppressor of Native Americans, causer of “widespread death and disease,” described as argumentative and combative, a man who became wealthy only because of the free labor of people he enslaved, who violently beat one enslaved woman in public for “putting on airs” and put others in chains, who forcibly displaced over 50,000 of America’s original inhabitants, a man born also in the Carolinas just like George Floyd was; it is in the honor of his memory that Derek Chauvin cruelly murdered his former co-worker, George Floyd. George Floyd, born in the Carolinas where a former president helped animate the nation to enslave and murder people with George Floyd’s skin color. George Floyd, “remembered by friends and family as a hardworking ‘gentle giant.’” Hardworking.
Thomas Jefferson called Andrew Jackson a dangerous man, and Jackson’s populist presidency may have inspired America’s current president, Donald Trump, whose administration refuses to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. Donald Trump, who presides over an administration that has seen over 100,000 Americans die of a disease that disproportionately targets Indian lands. Donald Trump who, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, promised to designate all anti-fascist people as a terrorist organization, and who threatened on the 29th of May, in a globally-viral tweet, that looters would be shot.
Supported by numerous tweets angry that Target and other stores are being looted, robbed of goods taken without payment, without work, looting has become itself a battleground—a line drawn in the sand of public protest of George Floyd’s murder. Looting and violence. But it stands to reason that people who have money probably don’t loot. And it stands to reason that people angry at having people who look like them murdered with no recourse to justice will lash out. This logic seems to escape much of America.
America has forgotten that it was founded on black people working for no pay and subsists on brown people working for very little pay, and that it is in arrears. It seems America cannot understand that black and brown people have worked hard and deserve something for it, the least of which should be the protection of the country they have built with their hard work.
Perhaps if it was not the face of Andrew Jackson, who enslaved people to do his work, and instead Harriet Tubman, who did the work of freeing people, on the $20 bill, perhaps Derek Chauvin may not have been so violent to George Floyd as to loot him of his life. Perhaps Derek Chauvin would have seen in George Floyd’s face the history of unparalleled service to America that remains yet unpaid, growing every day with compounded interest.
—New York City, June 3, 2020
This piece was originally published in https://www.middleclassartist.com/post/the-face-on-the-twenty-dollar-bill.
Edoheart is a poet, musician, visual artist, and royal descendant of the Benin Empire, the capital city of which was burned and looted of thousands of artworks by the British in 1897.