Maya Angelou, distinguished American writer, scholar, and activist, has become the first Black woman to be featured on a quarter. The coin inaugurates the United States Mint’s new American Women Quarters program, launched this year and continuing through 2025.
Each year for the duration of the series, the US Mint will issue up to five new reverse designs that celebrate women’s contributions to American history in areas as diverse as suffrage, abolition, science, and the arts. The 2022 quarters will depict physicist Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman to go to space; Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation; leading New Mexico suffragist Nina Otero-Warren; and Anna May Wong, considered Hollywood’s first Chinese-American movie star.
The debut coin, designed by Emily Damstra and sculpted by Craig A. Campbell, presents Angelou raising her outstretched arms in the air in a gesture of grace and triumph. Behind her are an eagle in flight and the rays of a rising sun, symbols said to be inspired by her writings — classics such as the groundbreaking autobiographical work I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), praised for its candid explorations of racism and gender discrimination as for its dignified portrayals of Black women.
Like every 25-cent piece since 1932, the obverse of the coins in the American Women Quarters series will feature a profile view of George Washington — a feature some have criticized given that the nation’s first president was an enslaver for 56 years. Some wish Angelou could be memorialized on the quarter without including a reference to a white, male historical figure; “White man on the front, Black on back,” one Twitter user lamented. (The US Mint’s website notes that the Circulating Collectible Coin Redesign Act of 2020 requires new obverse designs to maintain a likeness of George Washington.)
Instead of the usual left-facing portrait of Washington, however, a right-facing bust by the 19th-century sculptor Laura Gardin Fraser has been selected. The US Commission of Fine Arts and the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee strongly advocated for Fraser’s version, calling for “a design by a prominent American female sculptor for a program featuring prominent American women.”
As Angelou once said: “Make a mark on the world that can’t be erased.” Immortalized in her many poems, essays, books, and plays as well as her incalculable influence on the battle for civil rights, Angelou’s legacy is now indelibly emblazoned in copper. And it was about time.
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