I grew up learning about America in a chapter or two in our school's history book. It said that Christopher Columbus sailed across the seas. Through shear luck, he discovered the new world. When he reached the land, he greeted the inhabitants as Indians. The book went on to describe him as a heroic navigator and trader. That's the image I had ingrained in my mind.
Years later, I made the trip to this new world where I am currently settled. The first five years confirmed the story. Although a few people often said, "you can't say you have discovered a place, yet found people who were living there for thousands of years." They were a minority. But then in the 2010s, the story completely changed. To the point that many states no longer celebrate Columbus day. Instead, they celebrate Indigenous People's Day.
The facts about Columbus, the man he was and the atrocities he had caused had never changed. It was the stories that had faded over time. Whether it was deliberate or not, Columbus became a hero in history.
The story behind the 1860s American dollar bills might go the same way. So it's important to be clear about it right now. Two or three hundred years from now, we will look at the cotton pickers of yesteryear and think, they were not slaves but the most important workers of American society. Why would we put them on the currency if not to celebrate them? They were important indeed. I would even say, the most important. To the point that the country went to war just to keep them as slaves.
I can't help but think about the brave new cotton pickers of our modern society. The essential workers. When the entire country shutdown because of the virus, only they were allowed to go to work and keep our society from collapsing.
They are the store clerk who stocks the shelves and bags your groceries. They are the warehouse worker who packages your online purchase and ships it to you. They are the janitor who keeps the subway clean and sanitized. They are the healthcare worker who has to take care of the sick. They are the people that keep us going until we figure out what to do with the pandemic.
America celebrates these essential workers. There are long commercials made for the sole purpose of thanking them. There are billboards, posters, bracelets. All in the name of thanking these brave people. In Ralphs grocery stores, every hour the music is interrupted, and a voice reminds people to practice social distancing. Then it thanks the essential workers while shoppers give them a standing ovation. The only thing missing here is a livable wage and good health insurance.
Despite all the praises, these workers are not receiving any special relief for their work. In fact, they might be the most at risk. Not only they have a low pay, but because of it they can't stay home. They have to work to survive. We need them, yet we won't allow them to make a decent living.
They are the cotton pickers in our future ten dollar bills. One day, history may tell us that we celebrated them, that they were brave. But it might just omit the fact that they weren't being compensated for it. The 1860s ten dollar bill was not celebrating people. It was depicting important assets of the time. Cotton and slaves.
Unless we reward them for their work, the essential worker is just that, an important asset of our time. Service and cheap labor.
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