Category Archives: Public anthropology

It’s Not “Just” a Symbol

“Tails” side of the new U.S.
quarter
featuring Maya Angelou

The new Maya Angelou quarter is a symbol, yes.

But not “just” a symbol.

Because, symbols matter.

If they didn’t, they would just be like other, ordinary stuff.

If symbols didn’t matter, we wouldn’t fight over them. As in, people burning or otherwise desecrating flags when they’re mad at their government, and other people fuming at the sight or even thought of such actions.

If symbols didn’t matter, we wouldn’t protest when the wrong symbol appears in the wrong place for the wrong reason—say, a statue of a Confederate leader in a public square, visually celebrating the institution of slavery. As in: Why is there STILL a statue of Jefferson Davis in the “Statuary Hall” section of the U.S. Capitol?

A statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, left, in Statuary Hall at the Capitol in Washington.
(Credit:Doug Mills/The New York
Times; original here)

If symbols didn’t matter, we wouldn’t proclaim the need for the right symbol that never appears when it should—say, an image of a Black woman on a piece of currency.

As in: The new quarter featuring legendary poet and activist Maya Angelou on the back of the quarter that bears George Washington’s image on the front.

There are two notable components of this new quarter.

First, on the “heads” side, we see George Washington. Founders of nations are a big deal. No matter who they are, they carry their own symbolic weight. Anything occurring with them borrows some of their power. The semiotician would point out: It’s a metonymic transfer, its own type of magic. Sound too theoretical? Here’s a more down-to-earth way of making the same point. Anything, or anyone, appearing on the flip side of George Washington announces: I am worthy of sharing space with this venerable ancestor . . . and becomes even more important, the minute the space is shared.

There’s also the irony that the nation’s founder was, himself, a slave owner. In the double image on the new quarter, the author of I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings could also be said to be rebuking our collective father for his moral failures.

Second, Maya Angelou isn’t just appearing on a coffee cup, a shoelace, or a fencepost. She’s appearing on money. For a capitalist system, that’s also a big deal.

Money is, literally, the object that signifies value par excellence in a capitalist system. Since money serves as the symbolic foundation of any capitalist economy, whatever images gets stamped on its “legal tender” is chosen very, very carefully.

If mostly the faces of men, or of White people, show up on coins, that makes statements about who we value. And, those statements are seen every day by Americans. According to the U.S. Treasury, a given coin will circulate for a good thirty years or longer. Quite a lot of people will see and hold it. That’s another reason that who shows up on coins is subject to a lot of thought.

Announced this month, a new American Women Quarters Program will feature a series of notable (but under-appreciated) American women on the “tails” side, beginning with Maya Angelou.

The series is the brainchild of a bipartisan group of four female members of Congress, who co-introduced the Circulating Collectible Coin Redesign Act of 2020, to solicit public input into new US coin designs.

Secretary of the Treasury Janet L. Yellen certainly seems to have taken this new series seriously. A no-nonsense economist who has taught at Harvard, LSE, and UC-Berkeley, Yellen “often speaks in a monotone voice about Fed policy.” Yet, clearly, even this financial wiz understands the powerful symbolism embedded in the system over which she currently has dominion. Secretary Yellen positively waxed poetic when introducing the new American Women Quarters Program: 

“Each time we redesign our currency, we have the chance to say something about our country—what we value, and how we’ve progressed as a society.”

Janet Yellen, Secretary of the U.S. Treasury

All of which is to say: Maya Angelou showing up with George Washington on quarters is reason to celebrate!

For more, read the NPR piece about the new coin here. Read what Michelle Obama has to say about it here. See a preview of images from the entire new series of five American Women Quarters here.