Civil rights titan Maya Angelou makes history as first Black woman on US quarter

Maya Angelou

Poet and civil rights titan Maya Angelou, who passed away in 2014, will become the first-ever Black woman on a US quarter.

Angelou’s coin went into circulation on Monday (10 January), and is the first in US Mint’s American Women Quarters programme, which will also honour queer astronaut Sally Ride, Asian American actor Anna May Wong, Cherokee Nation leader Wilma Mankiller, and suffragette Nina Otero-Warren.

The author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a memoir which details how writing and literature helped to deal with the racism and trauma in her life, is engraved with her armed raised in front of a flying bird and a rising sun, in honour of how she “used words to inspire and uplift”.

The American Women Quarters programme was made possible by a bill, sponsored by Democratic Nevada senator Catherine Cortez Masto.

Masto said in a statement: “Maya Angelou’s writing and activism inspired countless Americans and her legacy helped fuel greater fairness and understanding across our nation… This coin will ensure generations of Americans learn about Maya Angelou’s books and poetry that spoke to the lived experience of Black women.”

Maya Angelou quarter

Maya Angelou’s quarter is the first in the American Women Quarters programme. (US Mint)

Maya Angelou was a powerful LGBT+ ally

Maya Angelou, who authored 36 books, received a presidential medal of freedom from Barack Obama and was awarded more than 30 honorary degrees, spent her life working for civil rights and was a powerful LGBT+ ally.

In a 1996 speech at the GALA [Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses] Festival, with a message of shared humanity, she famously said: “I am gay… I am lesbian. I am black. I am white. I am Native American. I am Christian. I am Jew. I am Muslim.”

She was also a strong supporter of marriage equality, and in 2009, at the age of 81, even personally called three New York state senators to push the issue.

While marriage equality wouldn’t become law in New York for two more years, according to the New York Times, she said at the time: “To love someone takes a lot of courage.

“So how much more is one challenged when the love is of the same sex and the laws say, ‘I forbid you from loving this person’?”

When Angelou died in 2014, then Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin said in a statement: “Maya Angelou has said that there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.

“LGBT+ people know this truth well — and it is part of why so many in our community have looked to her as a hero for so long.

“For those of us whom Angelou inspired to tell our own stories and live our own truths, we will always miss her indispensible voice.”