Opinion | Maya Angelou’s legacy is worth more than 25 cents

Maya Angelou is the first Black woman to be depicted on a quarter. But does this truly honor the poet’s legacy?

Arabia Parkey, News Reporter

Confining Black women to the back of currency while upholding images of men who enslaved our ancestors is an act fit to erase the legacy of Black freedom fighters.

Poet, singer, author, and social activist Maya Angelou is the first Black woman to be depicted on the U.S. quarter.

The Maya Angelou quarter is the first coin in the American Women Quarters Program, a four-year program aimed to celebrate the contributions made by women who furthered the development and history of the U.S.

The first series of the coins began distribution to banks across the country in early January.

“This coin will ensure generations of Americans learn about Maya Angelou’s books and poetry that spoke to the lived experience of Black women,” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nevada, the Senate sponsor of the initiative’s legislation, said in a statement.

But is this truly a productive way to honor Angelou’s legacy, when the oppressive history of George Washington – whose image continues to be featured on the head side of the coin – is unknown to most Americans?

Though Washington has been fronting the quarter since 1932, many are unaware that he inherited 10 enslaved people at the age of 11 after his father died. He purchased many more enslaved people as an adult, eventually owning upwards of 100.

It’s slightly more well-known that Washington’s famous dentures likely included teeth from enslaved people.

“It kind of plays into the way that we hold up the founders on this pedestal without really acknowledging any of the horrible stuff that they’ve done,” University of Iowa first-year Madison Johnson said. “If your goal was to raise awareness of who Maya Angelou was, there are much better ways you could go about it.”

Black women deserve recognized in ways that are on par with the legacies we’ve created for ourselves, a legacy greater than being plastered onto the backside of coins. Using Black faces as decoration is not the progressive act that it is intended to be.

Angelou, who died in 2014 at age 86, was active in the Civil Rights Movement and has a long list of accolades that warrant recognition.

As a social activist, Angelou worked alongside both Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She also spoke at the Million Man March in 1995 and served as the northern coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a prominent African American civil rights organization.

The Maya Angelou quarter is not an effective way to teach about or honor the poet’s work. Don’t put Black women on currency when there is an inherent pay gap between the Black and white communities. On average, Black women in the U.S. are paid 37 percent less than white men and 20 percent less than white women.

Black faces on money cannot properly honor Black lives when the racial wealth gap is at more than $11 trillion and the African American U.S. net worth has decreased by 14 percent. Instead, commemorate Black accomplishments and create substantial change by funding financial literacy programs within Black communities.

Honor Angelou and other Black freedom fighters by inciting tangible change in the Black community. This can be done by creating opportunities for Black artists and further Angelou’s contributions to the arts by funding Black art initiatives in her name.

Angelou’s legacy is worth more than a 25-cent commemoration. Honor Black women by giving us the tools to buy the freedom that Angelou’s caged bird sang for.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.