Until her death in 2014, Maya Angelou shaped American history in diverse ways as a civil rights activist, author and poet.
Her aggregate contributions have resulted in posthumous recognition. The American government has immortalised her image by embossing it on the back of a 25-cent coin, which United States Mint started circulating on Monday.
The quarter has embossed Angelou with elevated hands against a background of a flying bird and a rising sun above her head. The decoration was “inspired by her poetry and is symbolic of the way she lived”, the US Mint said.
Angelou is not just the first black woman to appear in the quarter but the first of the 20 to be honoured in the inaugural series of special coins to be produced over the next four years.
This move is an enforcement of the Circulating Collectible Coin Redesign Act, 2020, which directs the US Treasury to feature up to five women who have made monumental contributions to American history annually, beginning 2022. It will end in 2026.
First among equals
Other women, including the first Chinese American film star in Hollywood, Wilma Mankiller, and the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and physicist and first woman astronaut, Sally Ride, are lined up for the honour.
Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928, but raised by her paternal grandmother in the small town of Stamps, Arkansas, following the end of her parents’ marriage. She was three years old then.
Later, she legally changed her name, coining a new one from a variant of her Greek sailor husband’s surname, Angelos, and her brother Bailey, nickname for her, Maya. She later divorced the husband.
Her work as civil rights activist can be traced to her role in 1960 as a northern coordinator for the New York office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by Martin Luther King, Jr.
The nonviolent resistance organisation established in 1957 coordinated the action of local protest groups throughout the South. And she coordinated several fundraisers for the six months she served, according to Martin Luther King, Jr Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.
She was involved in Black Arts Movement, developed after the assassination of Malcolm X, an African-American Muslim civil rights activist. Through art and creativity, the movement actively pushed for black nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s.
In February 2011, former President Barack Obama awarded Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, her first of the seven autobiographical books published in 1969, is widely described as one of the most read and taught books written by an African American woman in the 20th century. In the book, she chronicles her life from the age three through 16, painting a crisp picture of unpleasant childhood that featured defilement and racism.
Other books she authored are Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie (1971), Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975) and Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? (1983).
Her poetry work became visible in 1993 when she presented her inaugural poem, On the Pulse of Morning, during the swearing-in of Bill Clinton as President.
By 2007, she had received 33 honorary degrees from colleges and universities across the country. She was Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, from 1982 until her death in 2014.
Commenting on Angelou’s honorary quarter, Mr Clinton tweeted: “If these wonderful coins can spread even a quarter of Maya’s strength, joy, wisdom, passion, and compassion, our country will be a much better place.”
While former US First Lady Michelle Obama described her as a “phenomenal woman whose comfort in her own skin made so many of us feel seen in ours.”
Angelou was also a singer, dancer, actress and screenwriter.
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