Roundtable 3: Race and Money
P. J. Hudson, Currency, Colonialism, and Monetary History from Below

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July 28, 2020

Peter James Hudson, University of California, Los Angeles

When discussions arose concerning the potential redesign of the US twenty-dollar bill, with the visage of Andrew Jackson replaced by an image of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, I was reminded of the scandalously neglected writing on race, money, and representation by the Kenyan feminist and political theorist Wambui Mwangi. Mwangi’s work on money includes an excellent unpublished University of Pennsylvania dissertation titled The Order of Money: Colonialism and the East African Currency Board, alongside articles in the academic journals Geopolitics and Comparative Studies in Society and History.[1] Throughout, she explores many of the questions and themes of race and money animating the interventions hosted by Just Money. She also offers an important critical extension of these debates. Mwangi considers the political economy of colonialism that necessarily undergirds these conversations in the African context, but are also applicable, I would argue, to the United States – and to the debates over representation, race, and the design of twenty-dollar bill. 

Mwangi’s The Order of Money is an important and innovative history of colonial currency policy that should be read alongside J. Lawrence Broz’ studies of the international origins of the US Federal Reserve system and Eric Helleiner’s discussion of the emergence of national currencies.[2] Yet where these studies, and many others beside them, utilize a top down approach to money, finance, and the logistics and infrastructure of circulation, Mwangi’s research has taken a radically different approach. While she is well attuned to the institutional politics and the organizational architecture of finance in the colonial context, Mwangi also provides us with a pioneering example of what we might call monetary history from below. That is, she also writes of how Black subjects have used, or, more properly, abused, colonial currency. Through defacement and defilement, Mwangi shows us how everyday holders of currency engaged in small acts of autonomy, critique, and resistance that challenged the prevailing political and economic orders represented by colonial currency and from which colonial currency draws its political, economic, and symbolic legitimacy and authority. Racism — that is, white supremacy — is a constitutive part of these orders and, through the use of money, those normative colonial racial orders are challenged.

Mwangi’s Geoforum essay, titled “The Lion, the Native and the Coffee Plant: Political Imagery and the Ambiguous Art of Currency Design in Colonial Kenya,” (based on a chapter of The Order of Money) is a case in point. She begins the essay with an elegant and canny observation on money’s visuality. She writes that money is meant to be seen but not looked at. She draws a distinction between the basic registers of visibility required for the everyday practices of circulation and exchange, and those more critical optics of scrutiny and interpretation that are embedded in currency design and are central to the functioning of money as a symbolic representation of power. Drawing on Walter Benjamin, Mwangi’s distinction between seeing and looking anticipates a discussion of the tactile, febrile, and perhaps even affective registers through which money is experienced and understood on the ground, as it were. This distinction also gives us a theoretical and conceptual pathway for further research into the history of money. Mwangi’s work does not so much invoke that age-old investigative adage to follow the money, with the end goal of understanding money’s sources of power and authority. Instead, her research prompts us to look at money, through a kind of counter-hegemonic exegesis of currency design by which the signs of power, often hidden in plain sight, can be read, interpreted, and, ultimately, destabilized.

In “The Lion, the Native and the Coffee Plant,” Mwangi provides detailed readings of not only the currency issues of the East African Currency Board (EACB), whose territory included Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika, Zanzibar, Somalia, and Aden, but she also offers close comparative readings of the moneys of the various European colonialisms operating across the African continent. Quite brilliantly, she shows how forms of colonial administration were represented in currency iconography and design. Of the issues of the EACB, Mwangi notes how the face of the currency included a portrait of the reigning British monarch with text in English, Gujarati, and Arabic. Their reverse contained stylized images of a lion superimposed on Mount Kenya. Pointedly, the EACB currency, unlike that of other European colonial territories, was devoid of representations of African people. The currency’s iconography inscribed the foundational mythologies and imaginaries of white settler colonialism in the East African territories: that of the African landscape as empty and uninhabited. 

Mwangi notes that from the 1920s to the 1950s, EACB currency and coinage design remained relatively stable and unchanging. Even though advances in printing technology encouraged potential forgery and counterfeiting, colonial authorities believed that design changes could potentially undermine trust in the currency. It was a belief based on a vision of Black illiteracy and incapacity. They believed that African people would be disturbed by changes to the currency, and that change would undo the pedagogical work colonial administers had done to teach them to accept and value European currencies in the first place.

However, by the mid-1950s, there was a sudden willingness among EACB officials to consider redesign of the currency. As Mwangi observes, the primary reason for this shift in attitudes was the onset of the armed insurrection against British colonial rule by the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA), pejoratively known as the “Mau Mau.” The revolt had an impact on all aspects of life in Kenya, including monetary exchange and circulation. Through a wonderful archival discovery, Mwangi demonstrates how the KLFA, or its supporters, used colonial currency as a means to both transmit ideas about the insurrection and, just as importantly, to undermine both the authority of the British and the divine status of whiteness in the colonies. In the files of the Kenya National Archives, Mwangi found a secret memorandum dating from 18 February 1955, written by the Office of the Director of Intelligence and Security and sent to the Secretary of the Treasury. Accompanying the memorandum was a defaced note, “a perfectly legitimate five-shilling note of the old King George VI issue, then still in fairly wide circulation.” Mwangi writes:

On the face of this note, however, over the inscription “The East Africa Currency Board,” and the signatures of the members of the EACB, had been scrawled the words “Mau Mau Very Good.” The portrait of George VI had been quite deliberately defaced and scribbled over.[3]

The British were highly attuned to the significance of the defacement of the iconography of the Crown, and the effective rewriting of the text endorsing the currency with the phrase “Mau Mau Very Good.” Fearing that the distribution and exchange of such defaced notes would encourage insurrection and undermine colonial authority, the colonial offices withdrew it from circulation. Certainly, one can imagine the revelatory and revolutionary significance of the defaced currency for any African suffering under British rule who received, held, and then looked at such notes before passing them on to another colonial subject. The anecdote suggests a sly, subtly subversive intervention into the everyday practices of circulation, and of circulation’s role in colonial rule.

Mwangi’s reading of money in the East African context offers an important addition to our understanding of money’s uses and functions beyond its traditional, somewhat hoary, definitions as a store of value, a medium of exchange, and a unit of account. Instead, for Mwangi, money is also both a symbol of colonial power and a technology of what David Scott has called “colonial governmentality”[4] through which power is exercised at some of the most quotidian, everyday levels. More importantly, for Mwangi, money also takes on a paramonetary function as a bearer of the signs (and scribbles) of anti-colonialism. This paramonetary capacity creates a parallel circuit of circulation and exchange whose velocity is tied to insurrection, and whose worth might be thought of in terms of the production, circulation, and exchange of anti-colonial values.

The questions Mwangi raises concerning race, money, colonialism, and anti-colonialism bring us back, in a slightly circuitous way, to the United States context, to the meanings behind the Harriet Tubman twenty-dollar bill, and to the question of US racial capitalism, to use that suddenly ubiquitous phrase, that are by necessity embedded in any discussion of race and money. [5] Certainly, we can understand the desire, in some circles, to not only have Tubman represented on US currency, but to have Andrew Jackson removed. It is both a conciliatory gesture towards African American incorporation into the national polity and an acknowledgement of a history of dispossessive violence and the lingering-on of a disgraced social and economic order. Yet, while the Tubman bill represents a desire for incorporation, and for recognition and redemption, it is a desire that does not question the fundamentally exploitative and racist political economy of the United States. The Tubman twenty represents representation without reparation. Or perhaps, it is a gesture guided by an idea that through the mere fact of representation, reparation is supposed to occur. In either case, such gestures presume that the “racial” in racial capitalism is merely a symbolic appendage to, not a structural foundation of, the political economy of US capitalism.[6]

It could be argued that depicting Harriet Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill actually promotes a misrepresentation and encourages a mode of misrecognition that resists Mwangi’s call to look at money. It asks us to reverse Mwangi’s optical progression. Instead of moving from seeing to looking, we are asked to revert from looking critically to merely seeing. Through this reversal, we are obscuring, or indeed, erasing the African American presence in the political economic history of the United States. We are encouraged to look away not only from the United States’ history of slavery and settler colonialism but also, if we follow the analysis of both Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton in Black Power, and of Robert L. Allen in Black Awakening in Capitalist America, from the actual colonial conditions under which Black people in the United States are living.[7] This is to say nothing of the United States’ external colonies, of its long history of overseas military intervention and imperial venturing, and of the dollarization of the world as the engine of US neocolonialism.[8] Until such colonial relations have ended, perhaps the most faithful representation of the US economy remains Andrew Jackson, with his grim, stentorian countenance a constant reminder of the glorification of white supremacy and of the pure extractive violence of primitive accumulation that is the history of the United States.[9] 

Mwangi observed how one of the colonial reactions to the Mau Mau insurrection was to begin a process of currency redesign. For the first time, Africans were depicted in East African currency. It was not an act of decolonization. Far from it. As with the demand for Black representation on US currency, it was meant as a conciliatory gesture, in this case one that would reconfigure, preserve, and extend British colonialism. Mwangi’s research suggests that we should be wary of such conciliatory gestures, that we should resist those invitations to see without looking. We would do well to deploy Mwangi’s analysis of currency in the British colonial territories in East Africa to think through the monetary history of the African American colony within the United States. Her work has the potential to provoke an audacious and radical research agenda on race and money in the US context. It asks us to search for those defaced, defiled, and discarded currencies in the US colonial archive, and to properly look at the history of money and currency design as it is reinscribed and rewritten from below.


[1] Wambui Mwangi, The Order of Money: Colonialism and the East African Currency Board (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 2003); Wambui Mwangi, “The Lion, the Native and the Coffee Plant: Political Imagery and the Ambiguous Art of Currency Design in Colonial Kenya,” Geopolitics 7, no. 1, (2002), 31-62; Wambui Mwangi, “Of Coins and Conquest: The East African Currency Board, the Rupee Crisis, and the Problem of Colonialism in the East African Protectorate,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 43, no. 4 (2001): 763-87. 

[2]J. Lawrence Broz, The International Origins of the Federal Reserve System (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997); Eric Helleiner, The Making of National Money: Territorial Currencies in Historical Perspective (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003).

[3]Mwangi, “The Lion, the Native and the Coffee Plant,” 48-49.

[4] David Scott, Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 23-52. For a discussion of savings and thrift as a mode of colonial governmentality in the US-Caribbean context, see Peter James Hudson, Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 177-221

[5] On the origins and history of “racial capitalism” see Peter James Hudson, “Racial Capitalism and the Dark Proletariat,” in “Forum I: Race, Capitalism, Justice,” special issue, Boston Review (Winter 2017), 59-65.

[6] The questions of representation, especially as they converge around questions of race and class, are discussed in Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove, 1963), 35-106; and Walter Rodney, “Aspects of the International Class Struggle in Africa, the Caribbean, and America,” in Horace Campbell, ed., Pan-Africanism: Struggle against Neo-colonialism and Imperialism; Documents of the Sixth Pan-African Congress (Toronto: Afro-Carib, 1975), 18–41.

[7] See Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (New York: Verso, 1992); Robert L. Allen, Black Awakening in Capitalist America: An Analytic History (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1990). For an astute reassessment of Allen’s work, see N.D.B. Connolly, “Black and Woke in Capitalist America: Revisiting Robert Allen’s Black Awakening… for New Times’ Sake,” Reading Racial Conflict (March 7, 2017).

[8] Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch, The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire (London: Verso, 2013), and Michael Hudson, Super Imperialism: The Origin and Fundamentals of U.S. World Dominance (London: Pluto, 2014) offer provocative and important assessments of the global history of US finance capital. Neither book, however, addresses questions of race, racism, and white supremacy. The classic study of neocolonialism remains Kwame Nkrumah, Neocolonialism: The Highest Stage of Imperialism (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1965). For important revisions, see Stewart Smith, U.S. Neocolonialism in Africa (New York: International Publishers, 1974); and Butch Lee and Red Rover, Night-vision: Illuminating War and Class on the Neo-Colonial Terrain (New York: Vagabond, 1993).

[9] On the longer history of the US economy, see Gerald Horne, The Dawning of the Apocalypse: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, Settler Colonialism, and Capitalism in the Long Sixteenth Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2020); Gerald Horne, The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in 17th Century North American and the Caribbean (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2018).