Dr. Maya Angelou Spoke Her Truth through Art and Activism
By Sarah Ramirez and Jennifer Schneider of the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative
This month you can hold American women's history in the palm of your hand. The U.S. Mint has released a new quarter featuring writer and activist Dr. Maya Angelou. Angelou is the first named Black woman featured on U.S. money.
Through the rest of 2022, the U.S. Mint will issue four more quarters featuring notable women on the reverse (tails side):
- astronaut Dr. Sally K. Ride (the first LGBTQ+ person on U.S. currency)
- Cherokee Nation chief Wilma Mankiller
- suffragist Adelina Otero-Warren
- Hollywood actress Anna May Wong
Staff at the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative, Because of Her Story, are excited to help bring this series to life. From 2022 through 2025, the U.S. Mint will release up new quarters each year featuring American women.
The series started with a public comment period, where people shared more than 11,000 suggestions. Experts from the Smithsonian and the National Women's History Museum helped select honorees for the 2022 series. We will continue to work with the U.S. Mint and the National Women's History Museum for the remaining series.
This year, we invite you to get to know the accomplishments and contributions of these women as their coins circulate.
Dr. Maya Angelou
Dr. Maya Angelou was a celebrated writer, performer, and social activist. Angelou published poetry, essays, children's books, and autobiographies. She was nominated for and won countless awards, including three Grammy Awards for Best Spoken Word Album. Her works include more than 30 bestselling titles.
Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri. She chronicled her difficult childhood in her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The autobiography discusses her experiences of economic hardship and sexual abuse. This abuse caused her to not speak for many years. During this time, she began heavily reading and memorizing poetry. After years of listening, she found her own voice again.
In 1969, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published. The book was banned by many schools and colleges for its open portrayal of sexual assault, racism, and sexuality. Undeterred, Angelou continued to write about her life. She published a total of seven autobiographies. She wrote openly and honestly about her childhood, her experiences as a teenage mother, her struggles to break into show business, and her political activism.
Though often remembered for her writing, Angelou's talents touched many fields. Angelou produced, acted, danced, made films, worked as a professor, and explored other creative pursuits. She performed in Broadway and off-Broadway productions, including 1960s Cabaret for Freedom. In the 1950s she toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess and recorded an album titled Miss Calypso. In 1982, she became a Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University.
In her lifetime she received more than 30 honorary degrees. President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010. In 2013, Angelou received the Literarian Award from the National Book Foundation, which honors contributions to the literary community.
During an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, Angelou talked about how she lived such a diverse life. She stated that "If I'm asked 'Can you do this?' I think, if I don't do it, it'll be ten years before another black woman is asked to do it. And I say, yes, yes, when do you want it?"
Angelou was a politically engaged writer and activist. Dr. Martin Luther King made Angelou the Northern Coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She worked in this position for less than a year but stayed in contact with Dr. King. Angelou shared some of her memories of working with Dr. King at the ceremony to unveil her portrait at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. She recalled that "Reverend King had great patience... He could be hilarious. And he was kind. There's another thing that happens when you have patience, you learn to be kind and compassionate. So Reverend King was compassionate."
Angelou read her poem "On the Pulse of the Morning" at President Bill Clinton's Inauguration in 1993.
Excerpt from "On the Pulse of the Morning"
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Maya Angelou's impact can be seen throughout the Smithsonian. She was the honorary chair of the National Campaign for the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art. In 2014, Angelou attended a ceremony to unveil her portrait at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. Angelou's proclamation scroll from the 1977 National Women's Conference can be found in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
- Her Story: Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects
- Angela Davis's Imprisonment Inspired a Movement
- How Madam C.J. Walker Used Beauty Products to Create Opportunities for African American Women
- Twelve Women to Know This Black History Month
Sarah Ramirez was the autumn 2021 Because of Her Story intern for the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative. Her work focused on expanding the Smithsonian's reach through creating a social media guide and writing website articles.
Jennifer Schneider is program manager for the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative, Because of Her Story. She works to help the Smithsonian center women's history in our exhibitions, collections, educational programs, and digital offerings.
“Maya Angelou, Algonquin Hotel, New York, NY, 1987” by Brigitte Lacombe, 1987. Inkjet print. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. © Brigitte Lacombe.