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New Maya Angelous quarter released Monday by the U.S.Mint.

Still I Rise, Slightly: Maya Angelou Coin Released

Abby Zimet

After a decades-long fight - and, to be clear, amidst enduring, egregious inequities - the U.S. Mint has begun circulating a new quarter featuring the late poet, author and activist Maya Angelou, now the first Black woman to appear on the coin. The Angelou tribute is the first in an American Women Quarters Program aimed at honoring prominent women, preferably of color, long ignored in a history and currency dominated by old, white, often slave-owning men. Known for her lyrical writing and majestic voice, Angelou rose to fame after the publication of her seminal autobiography, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," a harrowing account set in the segregated South of her brutal rape at the age of seven by her mother's boyfriend - a trauma that rendered her mute for six years. "There is no greater agony," she wrote much later, "than bearing an untold story inside you." Over time, Angelou won countless literary and humanitarian awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was given over 50 honorary degrees. She died in 2014 at 86, having never ceased speaking her vivid truth: "You may write me down in history/With your bitter, twisted lies/You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust, I’ll rise."

The Women Quarters project is largely credited to California Rep. Barbara Lee, who after years of advocacy introduced the Circulating Collectible Coin Redesign Act of 2020; it passed last January. With Monday's release, she celebrated "the phenomenal women who shaped American history (who) have gone unrecognized for too long - especially women of color." There will be more, thanks to the Mint's invitation to the public to submit other entries: From now through 2025, the series will also feature Wilma Mankiller, the first female Cherokee chief; Adelina Otero-Warren, a New Mexico suffragette; Sally Ride, the first woman in space; and Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American  film star. "Each time we redesign our currency, (it says) something about our country - what we value and how we've progressed," said US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Umm, yes and no, said Twitter. Many noted the new coin, echoing the Caged Bird, still has likely-slave-owner  George Washington on the "heads" side; others asked where Harriet Tubman's long-awaited $20 bill is, or noted the country's still-raging misogyny, or suggested half a new coin is like a male boss giving a 40-cent raise and congratulating himself on your "empowerment." We take heart from Angelou. "When people show you who they are the first time, believe them," she famously wrote. Then, "When you don't like a thing...change it."

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.
 
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and   
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
 
The caged bird sings   
with a fearful trill   
of things unknown   
but longed for still   
and his tune is heard   
on the distant hill   
for the caged bird   
sings of freedom.
 
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.
 
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams   
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream   
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied   
so he opens his throat to sing.
 
The caged bird sings   
with a fearful trill   
of things unknown   
but longed for still   
and his tune is heard   
on the distant hill   
for the caged bird   
sings of freedom.

Abby Zimet

Abby Zimet

Abby has written CD's Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, she moved to the Maine woods in the early 70s, where she spent a dozen years building a house, hauling water and writing before moving to Portland. Having come of political age during the Vietnam War, she has long been involved in women's, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues. 

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