With face lifted, arms outstretched and a bird soaring behind her, the image of Maya Angelou gracing a new edition of quarters has made history. Angelou, who made an indelible mark on society as a poet, performer and civil rights activist, last month became the first Black American woman to be featured on the 25-cent coin.
“This is a big deal!” said Ruth Anne Robbins, distinguished clinical professor of law at Rutgers Law School in Camden. “The design of money is deliberately tied to marking parts of history,” Robbins said. “We have to have diversity to show it from all dimensions.”
Angelou, who died in 2014 at age 86, was chosen as the first of 20 pioneering women from diverse backgrounds to be honored in the American Women Quarters Program. More than 204 million Maya Angelou quarters are in circulation nationwide, a U.S. Mint spokeswoman said.
Citizens have been calling for accomplished women and people of color to be memorialized on money going back a hundred years, Robbins said. “If we don’t have representation on our money, we don’t represent in the telling of our history,” she said.
More Public Input Needed
Robbins and colleague Genevieve Tung wrote a 2016 Rutgers University Law Review article making the case for a citizens currency advisory committee to participate in the design of U.S. currency (bills as opposed to coins). Two decades ago, Congress established the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee, so there’s been more historic figures featured on coins, she noted. More than 11,000 submissions of nominees for the American Women Quarters Program were received through an online portal, according to the mint.
African Americans, including Booker T. Washington and Jackie Robinson, have been featured on coins, but most often, those were collectibles, not coins in general circulation. Jazz musician Duke Ellington was the first to appear prominently on a circulating coin, the quarter honoring Washington D.C., released only 13 years ago.
Ruth Anne Robbins, distinguished clinical professor of law at Rutgers Law School in Camden
“Having Black Americans on commemorative coins isn’t the same because they are not in circulation so most people aren't seeing them,” Robbins said.
“We pay attention and know something about those who appear [on money]. In fact, so many of the many fights about monetary design happen precisely because it’s understood that those who appear on money are given heightened relevance in our teaching of American history.”
–Ruth Anne Robbins, J.D.
While the U.S. Department of Treasury oversees money, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing produces bills and the mint makes coins. No Black American has ever been featured on U.S currency; the abolitionist Harriet Tubman is slated to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, but that’s not expected to happen before 2030. Robbins noted the United Kingdom frequently changes the appearance of currency to recognize important figures in the arts and sciences as well as in government.
Reactions to Angelou Quarter
When the mint began shipping the Maya Angelous quarters last month, former First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted: “What a fitting tribute to have Dr. Maya Angelou become the first Black woman on the U.S. quarter — she was a phenomenal woman whose comfort in her own skin made so many of us feel seen in ours.”
Angelou’s poems emphasize resilience and serve as an anthem to the oppressed. Still I Rise from 1978 begins: “You may write me down in history / With your bitter, twisted lies, / You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
“Maya represents the voice of so many people who still remain voiceless today,” tweeted Former U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios, who helped champion the American Women Quarters Program.
“It is my hope that we continue to celebrate the achievements of the many women of color and Black women trailblazers who have left a profound legacy on our country, like Harriet Tubman and brave abolitionists who led countless enslaved people to freedom,” wrote U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee of California in a Jan. 11 CNN op-ed. Lee sponsored legislation in 2017 that led to the American Women Quarters Program.
“If you find yourself holding a Maya Angelou quarter, may you be reminded of her words, ‘be certain that you do not die without having done something wonderful for humanity.’” Lee wrote.
Angelou shared the story of her harrowing childhood in the South under Jim Crow laws in her 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. By then, she had already performed on Broadway and worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X championing civil rights.
She wrote 36 books, including cookbooks and children’s stories. In 1993, she became the first Black poet to participate in a presidential inauguration, reading On the Pulse of Morning at President Bill Clinton's first inauguration. President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010.
The Maya Angelou quarters were produced at the mint facilities in Philadelphia and Denver. The image of Angelou on the tail side of the coin was “inspired by her poetry and symbolic of the way she lived,” according to a statement from the mint. An updated version of President George Washington’s portrait is on the front of the quarter.
“This coin will ensure generations of Americans learn about Maya Angelou’s books and poetry that spoke to the lived experience of Black women,” U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada wrote in a statement. “Maya Angelou’s writing and activism inspired countless Americans and her legacy helped fuel greater fairness and understanding across our nation,” added Cortez Masto, who also sponsored the bill for the coin series.
For the American Women Quarters Program, the Mint will issue five quarters annually from 2022 to 2025, honoring an ethnically, racially and geographically diverse group of women accomplished in a wide range of areas, from civil rights and government, to the arts and humanities, to space and science. Physicist Sally Ride, the first woman astronaut, is next to be honored. The other 2022 honorees are:
• Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation
• Nina Otero-Warren, a leader in New Mexico’s suffrage movement
• Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American film star in Hollywood
“Twenty women will be honored through these quarters and will play a historic role to begin the conversation about our nation’s history that perhaps we have never had before,” Rios wrote.
Rutgers University–Camden is excited to celebrate the accomplishments of Black Americans through a month-long storytelling project titled RePRESENTation Matters. Each story will explore the significance of representation in our quest for true racial equality.
“My hope is that the RePRESENTation Matters project sparks conversation about why representation matters in the effort to overcome systemic racism.”
–Chancellor Antonio D. Tillis
Photo of Maya Angelou courtesy of Caged Bird Legacy, LLC.
All editorial photos courtesy of Getty Images.
Creative Design: Karaamat Abdullah