A gold coin from the US mint

Token Token: The African-American Lady Liberty Coin

In April, the U.S. Mint released a $100 gold piece featuring an African American Lady Liberty. The Mint says that it aims to celebrate the country’s diversity with the new coin.

According to the Mint’s website, “This new coin embraces our Nation’s founding principles that ‘all men are created equal … with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’” The coin will be a collector’s item, currency not meant for spending, valued at $1,690. But who is it for?

An image search for “coin collector convention” and “coin show” yields images of rooms filled with older, white men. White men have the money and the power, so it makes sense that they’re the demographic amassing valuable coins as a hobby. Of course white Americans, with 13 times more money than black Americans, are the coin-collecting demographic. Money – in the way us plebeians use it– is of little consequence to them.

Women, particularly black women, don’t have the money or influence that our white, male contemporaries have. This makes claiming our rightful “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” a challenge. The median annual earning for black women in the U.S. is lower than that of white men, white women and black men. We earn $21,000 less than white men, $8,000 less than white women and $7,000 less than black men. This gap in income, over the course of a 40 year career, adds up to an $878,000 loss. This coin, meant as a nod to women of color, will not be in the hands of many women or people of color. Few will even see it. Only 100,000 will be produced in order to ensure a future price point well above its face value.

The coin depicts a black woman as a symbol of freedom. Maybe the Mint recognizes the resilience and resistance of women and minorities as a type of freedom, freedom of the soul. But a look at the numbers reveals the everyday truth about freedom in America.  People of color make up just 14% of the population in the US but 40% of those incarcerated. Unemployment for people of color is twice that of whites. And studies have shown that job applicants with black-sounding names are 16% less likely to get an interview call-back than an equally-qualified candidate with a white-sounding name. Will the person who purchases one of these coins hire (or even interview) the woman depicted on it? Individuals with black-sounding names also have a harder time securing housing, are labeled as troublemakers in school and wait longer for rides when using car services like Uber. The minority woman is the least free person in America, oppressed by reason of our color and gender, in a social system that consistently marginalized us. Despite representation on its face, I doubt many black women will buy this coin. It’s not meant for us, literally or figuratively.

Now, to address a detail of the coin’s design: The female depicted has her hair in twists. Black women with natural hair know too-well the trauma of navigating white culture with hair that grows out (not down). We don’t naturally have silky, straight hair. Most of us have frizzy, kinky hair. Many of us straighten our hair chemically or sew in weaves that cost more than the coin in question in order to blend into white society, to make our blackness less flagrant. We press or pin back our hair for job interviews, and maybe, once we secure the job, untie it. If we opt to wear our hair natural, reactions from the general public range from amazement to disapproval, but never is our hair regarded as “normal.” Just this past weekend I visited a friend who referred to white hair as “regular,” in contrast to my hair. (She thought her one-year-old might be scared of my hair as the toddler had only ever seen “regular” hair.) Dreadlocks or twists, both practical hairstyles for natural hair, recieve the same reaction. In fact, the Army only recently (January of this year) allowed female soldiers to wear their hair in dreadlocks. The style had been previously banned. The coin pretends that black beauty and culture is regarded as highly as whiteness, but it’s not. For all Michelle Obama does to empower young women, even she knows that wearing her hair natural would be too much for the general public to handle. Showcasing a black woman on a rare gold coin isn’t going to change that. It feels like a mockery.

It’s hard not to see the black Lady Liberty commemorative gold coin is a joke, an ironic punchline to the status quo racism, sexism and false sense of equity and opportunity in the U.S. today. It might make wealthy, white America feel like they respect and accept black Americans. But policy, politics and the experience of being non-white in this country indicate that they don’t. In white hands, the coin is a false display of inclusion by way of placing value onto an object that depicts a black female. I’d rather we were valued in real life, not purchased for our weight in gold.

According to the New York Times, “the Mint is expecting the coin to sell well…Any profit the Mint generates from the sale of its coins is returned to the Treasury. Last year, the Mint sent about $600 million back to the federal government.” The coin, however well it sells, is an ineffective gesture. It’s the pretense of inclusion for monetary gain. The U.S. Mint should truly put its money where its mouth is and work toward the ideal that the coin represents. If the Mint aims to celebrate and elevate diversity in the United States, it should donate any profit that the coin generates to the National Diversity Council, or a similar non-profit organization whose mission is to advance diversity and inclusion. Or just let the Treasury print Harriet on the 20.

Brooklyn, NY

Tierney is the Director of Production at Flocabulary, an ed-tech company that makes learning engaging, relevant and accessible for students of all backgrounds using hip-hop. She oversees creative content production, working with artists and musicians to make music. Tierney has collaborated with the United Nations, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Fat Tony, Nitty Scott, Donwill and Sammus. Most recently, she has spearheaded a series of social justice videos, defying standards about when and where social justice is taught. She has degrees in creative writing and popular culture, loves dancing, reading and laughing, and lives in Brooklyn with her husband. Be cautious: the booty is bigger than it appears.

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