To commemorate its 225th anniversary, the U.S. Mint has introduced a collectors’ coin that marks a significant departure from every other American coin: It depicts Lady Liberty as a black woman. In an image designed by Justin Kunz, the new Lady Liberty gazes off into the distance beneath the word “LIBERTY.” Her hair, in twists, is pulled back into a loose bun; she wears a toga and a headband of stars. The value inscribed on the coin is $100, but because it is made of 24-karat gold, its actual worth is closer to $1,200.
It would be easy to dismiss the coin as meaningless: The U.S. Mint’s insistence on representing freedom with a fictional “lady” is anachronistic at best and troubling at worst, and commemorative coins aren’t exactly the beating heart of popular culture. Even so, the new Lady Liberty coin feels like an enormous symbolic step, somehow both urgent and long overdue. If we’re going to keep on depicting liberty as a woman, she ought to reflect the appearance of America’s actual women, not the tired, racist beauty standard embraced by our Founding Fathers.
When the U.S. Treasury announced that Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the next version of the $20 bill, some critics argued that it amounted to a re-commodification of a woman who was once literally commoditized. Daina Ramey Berry thoughtfully rebutted that argument in Slate, but the controversy showed that putting the image of a former slave on currency is a metaphorically complex endeavor.
Putting the image of an imaginary woman on currency is a little simpler, if only because there’s no real-life legacy to consider. Lady Liberty is an intentionally superficial figure: She embodies one of the highest ideals of our country, and she has traditionally reflected the beauty standard of her day. For a fairly conservative body like the U.S. Mint to depict a woman of African descent as Lady Liberty is for it to declare that black is beautiful—a statement that should be self-obvious but is still sadly absent from much of Hollywood and the fashion industry. Then there is the poignant significance of choosing a black person to personify liberty, when for so many years black people were systematically deprived of liberty. It is impossible to behold the new coin without confronting our nation’s history of slavery, which most American currency (like, for instance, the many bills and coins that honor slaveholders) allows us to ignore.
The U.S. Mint’s theme for its 225th year is “remembering our past and embracing our future,” and the new coin, which defies white supremacist beauty standards without erasing America’s racist past, embodies that theme perfectly. “When we unveil this coin a little bit later, you will not only see its beauty, but you will see how it proudly represents our nation, its past, its present, and its future,” said Elisa Basnight, the U.S. Mint’s chief of staff and herself a woman of color, at a ceremony introducing the coin on Thursday. “What this coin symbolizes for me personally … is the evolution of liberty.”
Happily for women of all races, the evolution of U.S. Mint commemorative coins doesn’t stop here. The new coin “is the first in a series of 24-karat gold coins that will feature designs which depict an allegorical Liberty in a variety of contemporary forms—including designs representing Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and Indian-Americans among others—to reflect the cultural and ethnic diversity of the United States,” the U.S. Mint announced in a press release. The new coins will be released every other year. I, for one, can’t wait to see the next one.