Charismatic and passionate, warm and wise, American author and poet Maya Angelou was a role model and activist who recorded and celebrated the experience of being black in America.
She was the first African-American woman to write and declaim a poem at the inauguration of a president in that country – that of Bill Clinton in 1993 – and now she will be the first to be commemorated with a coin.
The Treasury Department announced that in honor of Angelou it has minted 25-cent coins, popularly known as quarter.
The US Mint plans to issue 20 more coins of that value over the next four years, representing other american women They played important roles in the history of the country.
A difficult childhood
Born in Missouri in 1928 and died in 2014, Angelou and her brother Bailey were sent as children to live with their grandmother in a town in Arkansas.
Thus she ended up living for almost a decade in one of the poorest regions of the United States and experiencing racial segregation firsthand in the so-called Deep South: an experience that she would vividly relate in the first volume of her autobiography. “I know why the caged bird sings”, published in 1970.
At age 7, during a visit to Saint Louis, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. After telling the family, the man was arrested, tried and released from prison, although he was assassinated shortly after.
After that experience, she did not speak again for the next five years.
An extraordinary career
But, although she did not speak, she did read voraciously, which made it easier for a friend of her grandmother who recognized her passion for poetry to convince her to speak again, arguing that in order to fully enjoy it, the verses had to be said aloud.
Later, she moved again with her mother to San Francisco, where at age 15 she became the city’s first streetcar driver.
At the age of 16, gave birth to her only son, a male, after a loveless one night stand undertaken largely in a spirit of inquiry.
In no time she had embarked on an extraordinary career that included stints as a dancer, waitress, prostitute, and pimp. She became an actress and singer, recorded an album of calypso songs, appeared on Broadway, and traveled to Europe in a touring production of Porgy and Bess.
Along the way she acquired two or possibly three husbands (she was always a bit vague about the facts), and took her last name from the first of them, an aspiring Greek musician named Enistasios Angelos.
In 1961 she served for a time as the northern coordinator of the Martin Luther King Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He then followed the South African activist, Vusumzi Make, to Cairo, where he became a journalist.
Later he went to Ghana, where met black activist Malcolm X. She returned to the United States in 1965 to work with him, but was assassinated shortly after. A few years later Martin Luther King was also assassinated.
“I, along with several young people at the time, were disenchanted, and we felt angry and protested inequality,” he later told the BBC when he recalled his time with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
“But until the civil rights movement appeared, there was no clear way to oppose inequalities,” he added.
It was around this time that her friend, the writer James Baldwin, helped persuade her to write the first volume of his autobiography.
The text was a bestseller and six more volumes followed throughout the decades.
She also began publishing poetry, wrote a film script, wrote and hosted a 10-chapter television series on the blues and the African heritage of black Americans, and played Kunte Kinte’s African grandmother on the groundbreaking television series Roots, on the experience of slavery.
In the 1980s, she became an academic and professor of American studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, a prestigious white think tank.
By now, she was perhaps the best-known black writer in the world and one of the best-known black women in America.
Bill Clinton recognized his status when he asked him to read a poem, titled “On the Pulse of the Morning,” at his inauguration in 1993.
In 2010, Barack Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.
He received dozens of honorary degrees and wrote more than 30 best sellers.
The new quarter represents Angelou with open and outstretched arms. Behind her is a flying bird and a rising sun, which are “inspired by her poetry and symbolize the way she lived,” the US Treasury Department said.
The obverse of the coin features the traditional bust of George Washington, the country’s first president.
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