In 2022, the United States Mint will release the first five designs in a series that will highlight accomplishments of prominent American women on the reverse (tails) side of quarters. As legislated by Congress, the series will include up to five designs a year for four years.

The first of these circulating quarters honors the contributions of Maya Angelou (1928-2014), a person for whom I have enormous respect, so I am humbled and pleased to share that I created the design for this coin.

maya angelou quarter

Maya Angelou quarter design © United States Mint; used with permission

It was a challenge to figure out a way to represent Maya Angelou, considering that her life and her contributions to American culture were so multifaceted. Ultimately, I decided that showing her in an uplifting stance, gesturing expressively (as she often did while performing), would best convey the passionate way she lived. The bird in flight and the rising sun—imagery that she incorporated in her own writing—are also symbolic of the way she lived.

One of her most famous poems, Still I Rise, seemed autobiographical, and I wanted to allude to its powerful sentiment by showing Dr. Anglelou in a way that one might interpret her to be embodying the message of that poem.

She also mentions the sun and daybreak in Still I Rise:

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

and later in the poem:

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise

Her 1993 Inaugural poem On the Pulse of the Morning mentions the sun. She spoke of a “bright morning dawning” and ended the poem with “Good Morning.”

In one of her other famous poems, Caged Bird, she also refers to the sun while describing an idyllic scene of a bird flying through a landscape:

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

and later in the poem:

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own

The bird in my design is meant to embody the free bird in her poem while symbolizing how she lived. It is a purple martin, a songbird native to Arkansas (where Maya Angelou spent much of her childhood). Purple martins are aerial foragers that spend their days swooping and gliding high in the sky, catching insects on the wing. They are elegant birds in the same family as swallows. For those reasons I thought this would be a good species to illustrate Dr. Angelou’s poem, however the only thing that viewers need to understand is that it is a bird in flight; ultimately the species isn’t really important.

Her series of autobiographies (starting with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) made a deep impression on me. I am in awe of her ability to recount her life in such detail, and her willingness to share her stories so honestly. I hope that my design comes close to conveying Maya Angelou’s spirit and honoring her legacy.

6 Comments

Damstra

Really, really lovely and thoughtful Emily. My favorite coin of yours yet. You really captured her essence.

Gayle Hulswit

Really well thought out design. You really captured her words and her spirit. Thank you!

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