Poet Maya Angelou commemorated on U.S. currency

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Angelou was no capitalist Russell Mondy via Flickr

Capitalism loves gestures

Maya Angelou was a writer, a performer, and a civil rights activist. As of January 2022, she is the first Black woman to be featured on a circulating piece of United States currency. The Angelou coin is the first in a new series of coins the United States Mint plans to release over the next five years featuring prominent women in American history. 

The coin was designed by Emily Damstra and sculpted by the United States Mint metallic artist Craig A. Campbell. It features Angelou with her arm uplifted, and behind her is a bird and the rising sun. When Emily created the coin, she was inspired by Angelou’s poetry and the uplifting way she lived her life. On the other side of the coin is George Washington’s portrait to celebrate his 200th birthday. Laura Garden Fraser designed and sculpted it. 

Angelou had a prolific and influential career. She was a successful performer and worked as a singer, a dancer, and in theatre, but is best known for the autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Herpublished work includes fiction and non-fiction material, like poetry collections and essays, and she has over 30 best-selling titles. Angelou was also the first Black woman to write and read a poem at a presidential inauguration. Through the 1960s she was involved in the civil rights movement and aided people such as Malcolm X with whom she became good friends. She won many awards throughout her career and received over 30 honorary degrees. In 2011, Barack Obama awarded her the presidential medal of freedom, the highest honour the American state can confer.

Darlene Juschka, a professor of Women and Gender Studies at the University of Regina, said that the development of the coin has more than just a symbolic meaning. “It is a positive thing in so far as it does several things. It provides a historical representation of a significant woman who has had an impact, and so it recognizes her as being important and we have tended in the past to absolutely erase women’s voices largely because they are seen in times past just as the supporters of men. It allows us at the very least to think about the historical representation of Black women. And for those a hundred years from now to not lose Maya Angelou in the midst of time, because she’s represented on the currency. I think it is a good thing. I don’t think it’s tokenism, it’s an effort to correct a problem, and that is White Indo-centrism in the United States. You know, the notion that all heroes are white men. It we’re going to talk about heroes, no, they’re not all white men. They come in all different sizes and all different representations as non-white and not masculine.”

In contrast to the United States, Canada has had women on our currency, but the effort has been sporadic. From 2001 to 2006 the fifty-dollar bill had on it a depiction of the statue of the Famous Five – a group of white woman suffragists active in the 1920s – but the image of an icebreaker ship replaced them. The first woman elected to the Canadian parliament, Agnes Macphail, was put on the bill created for the 150th anniversary of the Confederation, but she shared the bill with four men. After that, women were generally absent from the currency until 2018, when Viola Desmond was put on the ten-dollar bill. Desmond was a Black Canadian civil rights activist arrested in 1946 for sitting in the whites-only section of a movie theatre.

When asked about Canada’s efforts to display women on currency, Juschka said, “There’s an effort here, but it has to be a consistent effort, and it has to be there. If it’s not a consistent effort it’s tokenism. We had the Famous Five and they were replaced with an icebreaker. Like, thanks for that. We have all sorts of people who have really contributed hugely to our society in the present and the past. There are females, Indigenous folks, male and female, and people of colour like Viola Desmond, who most people don’t know about and if we have Viola on [the currency] and so you say, oh, who is that? And someone says, ‘oh, that’s Canada’s Rosa parks, and this is what she did.’” 

Even in our evolving digital age the currency is important, not only as money but as a symbol of what a country values, and currency endures time. It is a reflection of a period of history. In the turmoil-filled last two years, the uplifting image of Maya Angelou on the quarter is a positive step forward for the United States, even if the measure is symbolic. The United States Mint has made an extensive effort to ensure that the women represented on the coins are diverse and that the representation is accurate. The process includes a six-step program with recommendations and insights from many different organizations such as the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Gallery of Art, the Bipartisan Woman’s caucus, and the general public. 

Hopefully, we will see more women on Canada’s currency in the future. Perhaps a similar program would be beneficial to see a more consistent effort and not just sporadic action. Who and what countries put on their currency matters, as Canadian historian Merna Forster, who actively campaigned to have more women included on Canadian money, said, “Who and what is celebrated on our banknotes matters, as it reflects what we consider important in our culture and history and whom we consider worthy of honouring for achievement. Women are not absent from the list of notable worthies in Canada, just notably absent or under-represented in many of the images that surround us and which contribute to our view of the world and our potential role in it.”

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