In I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings, poet and author Maya Angelou details the five-year period of her childhood when she was mute – unable to speak – after the man who had raped her was murdered shortly after being released from jail. “My voice killed that man,” Angelou recounts in an interview with Oprah Winfrey on how her seven-year-old logic led to her years-long bout of self-imposed silence. It was only through her voracious love of the written word that she would eventually reclaim her voice.
I was reminded of that story while looking at the image of Angelou newly engraved onto the back of the quarter dollar. An image of the late poet is posed with her arms wide open, juxtaposed alongside a bird with its wings spread open as if they’re both about to take flight. But if her writing was the song that Angelou sang, then arresting her image as the newest face of American currency is just another cage.
Maya Angelou’s image is on the back of a coin that still features a slaveowner on the front. Huh.— Renée Graham 🏳️🌈 (@reneeygraham) January 11, 2022
In a press release, Secretary of Treasury Janet L. Yellen said that the decision to put Angelou on the quarter signals “what we value, and how we’ve progressed as a society.” But when you realize that enslaver George Washington still sits on the front of the quarter that Angelou – whose great-grandmother was born a slave – it begins to set in just how sinister it is that in a country that was founded on the use of Black people as capital, use a Black woman who grew up in poverty and experiencing the worst of this country’s evil as an emblem to reinforce the existence of the state.
In the midst of a global pandemic that has raged into its third year, Black women have experienced the brunt of the continued political failure in America. According to a recent Harvard study, Black women have died of COVID-19 at “more than three times the rate of white men and Asian men.” And though Angelou died in 2014, Black women like her – the elderly, those dealing with “comorbidities” like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (like Angelou did) – are at severe risk from COVID today.
So when Yellen speaks of how much America “values” Black women, we must contrast such statements against the millions who have died or been left disabled by COVID-19 due to this country’s deeply embedded medical racism as well as the government’s lack of preventative action in favor of preserving capitalism.
We have a Maya Angelou coin. An Ida B Wells barbie doll yet poor Black women are experiencing the brunt of this pandemic and overall societal collapse. Representation feels like nothing but a bandaid placed over a bullet hole— Daniel Kaluuya If You Are Reading This I Swallow (@WrittenByHanna) January 12, 2022
Had this country actually valued Black women, especially in the midst of a pandemic, we would have free healthcare, free childcare, and universal basic income along with a thriving wage. Instead, we are given symbols. Empty gestures. Like a placebo or a band-aid over a bullet hole. Mere objects meant to placate us out of demanding what we need.
Representation has become America’s cynical move, deployed with an alarming frequency in the past decade against marginalized people’s calls for material change.
Shortly before Angelou’s coin was released, the Mattel Brand Barbie announced that they would be making a doll in honor of journalist Ida B. Wells who is recognized for her work documenting the terror that was lynching. This isn’t the first time that Barbie has invited a historical figure into her Dreamhouse, but it’s a curious choice, nonetheless, for a brand known for making white supremacist beauty standards a fixture in homes across the world, to have chosen for their latest doll a Black woman who spent her career pushing back against whiteness.
I’m really exhausted by folks jumping up and down over every little thing.— C. (@womanistwriter) January 11, 2022
Maya Angelou on a coin doesn’t buy us a remedy against racial oppression. It buys THEM more time…
That’s not to mention Kamala Harris, the mixed-race Black woman whose image as the first woman sworn into the vice presidency was intended to conjure in our minds the Obama-era feelings of racial progress and pride in America. But what does a Black woman in the second-highest office of the land mean, when her administration continues to let so many Black women suffer economically and physically for the benefit of empire? There’s violence in turning a Black woman’s legacy into a thing to be played with. And in suggesting that a Black woman being second in command of this country could possibly make this place any less evil.
Angelou was many things. She was a poet, an author, an actress, a director, and a sex worker. She was a woman who lived many lives. But most importantly she was a little girl whose voice returned to her through her poetry after years of silence and trauma. She lives in her words, not through symbols that render her inanimate, dull, and voiceless.
To settle for representation is to settle for the cage that Angelou wrote about. Looking to see ourselves advance inside of white power structures only ensnares us into white supremacy’s trap. Black women deserve more. Wells deserves more. Angelou deserves more.
Featured image by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, Illustration by Kyra Jay