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Maya Angelou on money is a poem only America could write

Putting the poet on a quarter and Harriet Tubman on the $20 does not honor them properly

A photo provided by the United States Mint shows the reverse side of a United States quarter featuring the likeness of the writer Maya Angelou.THE DEPARTMENT OF TREASURY/NYT

Our faces on money, gracing the other side of currency upholding men who enslaved our ancestors, is a painful kind of spending.

America values its dollars and cents and adorns money with cutthroat capitalists who place profit over people and pretend Jesus is their savior while they worship cash. Is this the kind of homage we want?

Last week, the United States Mint started shipping quarters featuring the phenomenal Maya Angelou and other women to banks across the country as part of its American Women Quarters Program, making her the first Black woman to be featured on the 25-cent coin.

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

Will having her on the quarter teach folk about her legacy in a country that is fighting over teaching accurate American history in the classroom? Will they learn about Angelou using her arts as activism and her role in American civil rights, or will her story be cookie-cut and her poetry diced up into comfortable excerpts to be exploited, like they’ve done to Martin Luther King Jr.?

Does the average American know the names and legacies of the many slavers whose faces live on the front of their cash?

Honor us not by putting us on coins and bills when we are the descendants of folk once bought and sold as part of America’s economy, but by actualizing equity.

Putting Maya Angelou on the backside of a quarter while Black women make nearly 40 percent less than white men and 20 percent less than white women, even in the same job, even with advanced degrees, is just another in a long line of injustices. Racism, sexism, and supremacy make for a bittersweet American pie.

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Decorating your money with Black heroes is not equality. It is not justice. It’s not even a great way to learn about the brilliant poet who raised our souls with her prose. Make her a monument. Place her name on a school that isn’t afraid to teach the truth.

“It is impossible to struggle for civil rights, equal rights for Blacks, without including whites,” Angelou once said. “Because equal rights, fair play, justice, are all like the air: We all have it, or none of us has it. That is the truth of it.”

But so many white folk in this country think that if all of us have civil rights, they won’t have power, if the whole truth is taught in school, they won’t have favor, that equity will cost them privilege. Those fears are enough to send them to our Capitol, raising Confederate flags and erecting a noose, ready for war in the name of white supremacy under the guise of freedom.

Do not put us on money when there are elected officials who betrayed our nation and incited an insurrection, and other members of that mob are freely running for office. Biden got it wrong. We did not prevail. And the normalization of this violence is not something we the people should endure.

Angelou was a poet. Angelou was an author. Angelou was an activist. She succeeded Bayard Rustin as northern coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She spoke at the Million Man March, reminding us that we are a “going-on people who will rise again.”

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Angelou believed in King’s vision for the Poor People’s Campaign before his assassination. Pay homage to a woman who stood behind the fight for economic equality and for all people by creating economic justice.

Five years ago, the US Treasury announced the $20 bill would be redesigned with Tubman’s portrait on the front and Andrew Jackson on the back. It’s yet to happen, but last year Biden claimed to be pushing it forward.

In a country where we are still fighting for forgiveness of student loans and rent relief, where Biden is urging schools to stay open during the pandemic and the CDC is sending sick people back to work sooner than they should, is putting Black folk on money progress?

Tubman risked her life for her freedom and that of others. She actively fought capitalism that enslaved people. And we’re still fighting for equity. Honor her more respectfully than a $20 bill. Lift her legacy. Do not commodify Black women and call it commemoration.

On the same day Angelou’s quarters began shipping and she made history as the first Black woman to grace a 25-cent piece, Rachael Rollins was sworn in as US attorney, becoming the first Black woman to serve in the role for Massachusetts.

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Rollins’s life has been threatened. Every last Republican senator voted against her nomination. She’s been targeted by conservatives across the country and called dangerous by Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton, who labeled her as “pro-criminal.” This type of vilification riles up white rage and puts her at risk.

She’s received e-mails saying things like: “SOMEONE, SOMEWHERE IS PLOTTING TO PUT ONE IN YOUR FACE OR HEAD!!!”

But the US Marshals Service declined to protect her. They protected Betsy DeVos, the former secretary of education, from hecklers, but not the first Black woman to serve as US attorney for Massachusetts. Rollins found herself at the center of a national debate so deep the vice president had to cast a tie-breaking vote, she was demonized by powerful Republican figures, and that still wasn’t enough to warrant protection?

They won’t protect a Black woman who is protecting us but they put the people’s poet laureate on a coin and called it an honor.

Maya Angelou knew why the caged bird sang, and a quarter couldn’t buy that freedom prayer.



Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee and on Instagram @abeautifulresistance.