Henry Lipkis’s $20 bill mural, it’s worth more than that

Editors Note:  The following series Beyond the Beignets: A deeper look at New Orleans” is a week-long series curated by Rena Repenning as part of the Digital Research Internship Program in partnership with ViaNolaVie. The DRI Program is a Newcomb Institute technology initiative for undergraduate students combining technology skillsets, feminist leadership, and the digital humanities.

Because I live in New Orleans as a Tulane student, I often feel like a visitor instead of a resident because Tulane’s social life is disconnected from the city’s year-round residents. When creating Beyond the Beignets, I compiled 10 articles that articulated an often overlooked part of city life. This piece is written from the perspective of the muralist and their ideas about public art, race, history, and the power that imagery has. This was originally published on February 26th, 2019.

Henry Lipkis’s Mural. (Photo by: Nora Daniels)

My name is E’njoli Phillips and I’m taking on the perspective of Henry Lipkis, a well known muralist in New Orleans. This is what I imagine his words would be about his $20 Bill Mural.

So here’s the story behind the $20 bill. The art piece that was initially on the wall was done by an artist from out of town. It depicted Andrew Jackson, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. I lived right by that wall and thought, “That should’ve been a Tubman  $20. This is going to be trouble.”

The original piece went up in the midst of the Confederate Monuments, so to see Andrew Jackson, alongside all these other powerful slave owners going up, it made a lot of residents pretty angry. Then came the graffiti writers; they bombed all over it. It got fixed. Then it got tagged with “Slave Owner,” over each of the presidents.

A couple weeks went by and it got fixed again. Then it had “Fuck Trump, Fuck Fascists.”

“This [graffitti] was done out of spite. People are just ignorant and don’t think how their actions can affect a community. History is just that, no one wants to be reminded of it every chance they get,” says Angelique, a community member. At this point it’s been a constant battle between graffiti writers and the artist. This went on about five months until my partner, Devin Reynolds, and I decided to paint Tubman all over the wall in just one day.

As a white male, and a muralist in this situation, I saw a mess in a mural that was created in ignorance of the social and political movements of the city. When the other artist [of that presidential mural] was critiqued for her public work, she got defensive instead of owning her mistake and doing something better. At that point it erupted into that battle with graffiti writers and, while it was entertaining to watch vandals dish out social justice, it was also painful for the neighborhood to watch that all go down, and in the end it was a big horrible mess that everybody had to see, every day.

So, as a white muralist, I saw an opportunity to do right by the neighborhood I lived in, where another white muralist had messed up. We’ve got to correct our own whenever possible.

Harriet Tubman is a black icon but also an American icon — someone that everybody can find inspiration within. To look and learn from her story of empowerment, subversion, rebellion, and freedom for her people at all costs. “Harriet Tubman is a powerful black women that everyone should remember,” said Angelique, a community member.

The idea of the treasury department putting her face on the $20 dollar bill came up during the Obama administration, and it seems like a nearly impossible gesture looking at our government today. Even if it were to happen, it would be bittersweet but also not 100% righteous, to put the face of America’s  most iconic liberator on the currency which is often felt as an object of oppression, could be kind of sad. So there’s definitely a contradiction in there.

Is a $20 bill all we’re worth? After all the years of pain, suffering and strife, all you have to offer is a $20 bill?

“The black women is art; a perfect expression of pain, struggle, strength, and beauty. Harriet Tubman is revolutionary and should not be undermined,” says the community member Angelique.

Today, people are pretty excited to see an African American woman on American currency. I think as we are transitioning into this democratized society, it’s refreshing to see someone who looks like you on something as important as money. I think it’s chance to show that honoring a hero who defended ideals we all treasure is simply the correct thing to do: an act that rallies, as Abraham Lincoln said in another time of strife, “the better angels of our nature.”

Tubman is one of the most exceptional female leaders in our nation’s history. Born a slave, she fled North like thousands of others who escaped along the Underground Railroad. This was brave enough, but then she returned in disguise countless times over the course of a decade to spirit a hundred or more to freedom. Although a mural to her won’t automatically cure the racial caste in America, its a step in the right direction.


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