The new Maya Angelou quarters could help redefine 'freedom' in America: 'What a beautiful thing'

The Maya Angelou quarter is the first U.S. coin honoring a Black woman.
U.S. Mint

The new Maya Angelou quarter might be more than just a 25-cent piece of U.S. currency: The coin is helping to redefine what freedom looks like in America.

The quarter, which launched in January as the kickoff to the U.S. Mint's "American Women" series, is the first-ever U.S. coin honoring a Black woman. Recently, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen described the series as a chance to convey "what we value and how we've progressed as a society" — and on Friday, Yellen plans to visit the facility in Denver where the quarters are pressed to highlight the effort.

But it's not just the quarter's existence that matters: The design of the coin is symbolic, too.

Standard U.S. quarters show George Washington on the front and a bald eagle on the back – classic American archetypes of freedom. The Angelou quarter still features Washington on one side. But on the other side, it showcases the profile of the Black author and activist who died in 2014, set against images of freedom from her iconic works: a flying bird, the rays of the sun and Angelou's own arms lifted to the sky.

Those are intentional design choices, according to Emily Damstra, the coin's designer and a professional natural science illustrator.

"It struck me that she lived life very passionately," Damstra tells CNBC Make It. "A lot of her work is geared toward uplifting people. And so I wanted to show her in an uplifting gesture."

Damstra says she was inspired by the aerial imagery in Angelou's writing, particularly in poems like "Caged Bird," which reads: "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."

The bird in Damstra's design is a purple martin, which is native to Arkansas, where Angelou grew up. Damstra says she didn't originally plan to merge Angelou's profile with that of the bird. But after playing with the images on her computer, she realized that combining the two made them more powerful.

The final design has touched the heart of at least one person: none other than Oprah Winfrey.

"What a beautiful thing," Winfrey declared in an Instagram video, shortly after the quarters went into circulation. Cupping the coins in her hand, she called them a "treasure, so magnificent it makes me want to cry."

The Mint considered designs from multiple artists for Angelou's coin, asking a predetermined group of outside artists to submit ideas. Damstra says seeing her work memorialized on such a piece of U.S. currency has been emotional, to say the least.

"It's a roller-coaster of emotions about having a lot of confidence, and then having a lot of doubt about if this is going to work or not," she says. "Or, how well it's going to be received."

This isn't Damstra's first successful coin design: She's previously worked with both the U.S. Mint and the Royal Canadian Mint. Her artwork appears on about a dozen U.S. coins and commemorative medals, and nearly three dozen in Canada. She was also selected to design another American Women quarter, featuring actress Anna May Wong, which will be the fifth in the series.

So far, more than 300 million Angelou quarters have been shipped for circulation. The next design, featuring astronaut Sally Ride, is scheduled to go into circulation on March 21. The program will continue through 2025, and feature up to 20 inspirational women from varying walks of life.

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Maya Angelou to appear on new quarters as U.S. Mint launches American Women series
Maya Angelou to appear on new quarters as U.S. Mint launches American Women series