Flip an American coin, and there’s a zero percent chance you’ll find a black woman on either side.
In April, that will change: To celebrate its 225th anniversary, the U.S. Mint plans to release a commemorative $100 gold coin featuring an African American Lady Liberty.
The 24-karat coin, whose release the Mint announced Thursday, will cost far more than its face value — around $1,500, depending on the price of gold — and will be a collector’s item, not everyday currency. The Mint will also make less-expensive silver reproductions. The coin is the first in a series to reflect what the Mint calls “the cultural and ethnic diversity of the United States.”
The exact shape future Ladies Liberty will take, according to the Mint, will be up to the artists who design them.
This commemorative coin will arrive just less than a year after the announcement that Harriet Tubman is bumping Andrew Jackson to the back of the $20 bill. In some ways, the news about Lady Liberty seems small in comparison. Most Americans won’t use or even see the coin; only numismatic enthusiasts will find a place for it in their collections (though former President Barack Obama expressed interest in purchasing one). Besides, Tubman deserves to be recognized for the remarkable role she played in history, while Lady Liberty is just an allegory.
Yet allegory is also what makes Lady Liberty the perfect candidate for a recasting of American ideals: Because she has no face, the country gets to decide what face to give her. The multicultural Ladies at their best will chronicle an evolution in what the nation thinks liberty means and always should have meant: freedom not just for the huddled European masses whom the Statue of Liberty began welcoming after her own arrival to New York in 1885, but the men and women who arrived in chains decades before, and those who come to America from around the world today believing in her promise.
A black Lady Liberty doesn’t make up for a woeful past, and her coin should not turn into a chance for the country — or the U.S. Mint — to pat itself on the back. Instead, it should invite a conversation on how our nation still falls short.
Giving liberty the faces of more Americans has symbolic value, but only if accompanied by policies that enlarge freedom for all Americans.
Note: This editorial first appeared in the Jacksonville Journal-Carrier, a fellow Civitas Media newspaper.