Revered poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou has become the first Black person to be featured on a U.S. coin. While some are celebrating the move by the U.S. Treasury, others say putting the late poet on quarter smacks of empty symbolism for Black America.
The Maya Angelou quarter, which was rolled out on Jan. 10, is the first in a four-year American Women Quarters Program. Moving forward, other prominent women in U.S. history will be featured on the tails side of President George Washington, who has been on the quarter since 1932. Other quarters in the series will be issued later this year and through 2025, according to the U.S. Mint.
“Each time we redesign our currency, we have the chance to say something about our country — what we value, and how we’ve progressed as a society,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement. “I’m very proud that these coins celebrate the contributions of some of America’s most remarkable women, including Maya Angelou.”
Harriet Tubman was selected to appear on the $20 bill, but those plans were squashed by former President Donald Trump, who delayed the printing. In 2019, then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said “counterfeit issues” would make it impossible to unveil Tubman on the bill by 2020, the deadline set by the Obama administration
Other women to be featured on the quarter include astronaut Sally Ride; actress Anna May Wong; suffragist and politician Nina Otero-Warren; and Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, NPR reported.
“Each 2022 quarter is designed to reflect the breadth and depth of accomplishments being celebrated throughout this historic coin program. Maya Angelou, featured on the reverse of this first coin in the series, used words to inspire and uplift,” Mint Deputy Director Ventris C. Gibson said in a statement.
Angelou’s name is on the tails side of the coin with an image showing a woman with her arms uplifted. Behind her are a bird and the rising sun, inspired, the Mint said “by her poetry and symbolic of the way she lived.” One of Angelou’s most famous books is “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” her 1969 autobiography.
Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, introduced the Circulating Collectible Coin Redesign Act of 2020, which passed in January 2021 and paved the way for the creation of these new coins.
“The phenomenal women who shaped American history have gone unrecognized for too long — especially women of color,” Lee said in a tweet. “Proud to have led this bill to honor their legacies.”
But others aren’t impressed.
“So, Maya Angelou and enslaver George Washington on the same coin? Some will say it’s progress but all I see is symbolism & disrespect. PUT SOME RESPECT ON OUR NAMES!” tweeted Na-tha-nee (@NathaniNoShame).
When George Washington’s father, Augustine, died in 1743, George inherited enslaved people at the age of 11. He was willed 10 enslaved people. As a young adult, George purchased at least eight more enslaved people, according to George Washington’s Mount Vernon Organization, which preserves and manages the estate.
“Pitting Maya Angelou on the back of the quarter is symbolism for how this country views DEI. Like a charitable thing to do when it’s convenient. On the other side is George Washington, an enslaver who declared thanksgiving a national holiday—whitewashing the American revolution,” tweeted DSRD Consultin (g@DrSamR_) (DEI stands for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.)
Others on Twitter pointed out the hollow symbolism in lieu of reparations and voting rights. “Fck symbolism. Maya Angelou on a coin AINT REPARATIONS,” tweeted Armed and Melanated 25/8 (@Armed_Ogun).
“I mean this is do or die week for voting rights. But by all means, let’s celebrate that terribly anglicized image of Dr. Angelou on a quarter as evidence of racial progress. Who needs the vote when you could be happy with a symbol?” questioned Brittney Cooper, founder of the The Crunk Feminist Collection.
“What’s the purpose of having Maya Angelou on a quarter if most of the currency is in other people’s pockets outside of #ADOS?” questioned TajMarieX (@TajMarie17).
“Non Tangible symbolism from the US government is comical at this point. Put Maya Angelou and Harriet Tubman on some reperation checks,” tweeted Buba Woods (@PlayaMixon).
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The U.S. Mint invited the public to submit female American icons, with an emphasis on women from “ethnically, racially and geographically diverse backgrounds.” The only requirement was that the women who appear on the coins must be deceased, CNN reported.
Angelou in 1992 became the first Black woman and second Black poet to write and present a poem at a presidential inauguration. She died in 2014 at the age of 86.
Photo: Maya Angelou Quarter, USMint.gov