If you’ve been online at all in the past couple of years, you’ve seen the debates around changing up United States currency so it features somebody other than, well, an old white guy. Back in October, the U.S. Mint announced designs for its American Women Quarters Program. Now, the Mint has finally begun shipping out coins, starting with a quarter featuring Maya Angelou that debuted Monday. The legendary poet is now the first Black woman to appear on the quarter.
From 2022 to 2025, the U.S. Mint will print five quarters per year featuring a notable American woman. The designs are meant to somehow embody each of the individual woman’s accomplishments or legacy. Angelou’s quarter shows her with her arms uplifted, and behind her you can see a rising sun and flying bird. The Mint said the design was inspired by her poems and “symbolic of the way she lived.”
Angelou, who passed away in 2014, is perhaps best known for her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. But along with her poetry, Angelou was a civil rights activist. In the late 1950s, she joined the Harlem Writers Guild, and during that time had a chance to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak. Inspired by his words, she began working with King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and eventually worked with Malcolm X, too.
“As a leader in the civil rights movement, poet laureate, college professor, Broadway actress, dancer, and the first female African American cable car conductor in San Francisco, Maya Angelou’s brilliance and artistry inspired generations of Americans,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the House sponsor of the bill authorizing the coins.
While plenty of people will be excited to snag a coin featuring Angelou, there is some hesitancy about the purpose of putting Black women on American currency. In 2016, when the U.S. Treasury said it would replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, many declared that doing so would undermine her legacy. In Angelou’s case, there’s the fact that George Washington will still appear on the “heads” side of the coin, while Angelou will feature on the “tails” side, per CNN.
Sure, Tubman and Angelou are coming from two very different contexts. Tubman was born into slavery and, as Daina Ramey Berry wrote for Slate, “defied the commodification of her personhood by liberating herself and many others.” Placing Tubman back onto the currency that she, in many ways, sought to overhaul produced tensions that made many uncomfortable.
Even though Angelou wasn’t born enslaved, she is still the descendent of enslaved people. And so, for some, those same tensions remain. But for others, Angelou’s inclusion on the quarter is something to be celebrated.
“I will forever cherish the private moments I had the privilege to share with Maya, from talking in her living room as sisters to her invaluable counsel throughout the challenges I faced as a Black woman in elected office,” Lee said. “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.’”