May 03, 2007

The safe, white state quarters

Since correspondent Russell Bates wants to talk about the state quarter program, let's do it. You can see all the winning designs here:

50 State Quarters Program

With the exception of King Kamehameha on the Hawaii state quarter, there's not a single person of color on any design. The only hint of America's rich Indian heritage is the Zia symbol on New Mexico's quarter. Clearly the states opted for the mildest, least controversial choices among the myriad of possibilities.

To represent America's multicultural history fairly and accurately, here's what the quarters could've depicted:

  • Virginia:  A Powhatan Indian meeting a Jamestown colonist rather than three ships.

  • Georgia:  Martin Luther King Jr. rather than a peach.

  • Alabama:  A sharecropper picking cotton rather than Helen Keller. (Do Alabamans know she was a radical socialist?)

  • Louisiana:  Louis Armstrong blowing his trumpet rather than an isolated trumpet and pelican.

  • Minnesota:  Chippewa Indians in a canoe rather than fishermen in a motorboat.

  • South Dakota:  A headshot of Sitting Bull rather than a pheasant over Mt. Rushmore.

  • Oklahoma:  Cherokee or Osage Indians in front of an oil well rather than a scissor-tailed flycatcher and flowers.

  • Colorado:  Mesa Verde rather than a generic Rocky Mountain scene.

  • Utah:  A hogan nestled in Monument Valley rather than the forging of the intercontinental railroad.

  • New Mexico:  Taos Pueblo with the Zia symbol rather than the Zia symbol alone.

  • Arizona:  A Grand Canyon scene with Geronimo or a Navajo in the foreground rather than the Grand Canyon alone.

  • Alaska:  A grizzly bear with an Inuit kayaker or a totem pole in the background rather than a grizzly bear alone.

  • Other states that could've used Indians include Washington, Michigan, and Montana.

    I admit that not all of these are equally defensible. I'd say the actual choices for Minnesota, Colorado, and Utah are fine. But most of my alternatives seem reasonable to me. How do you do the South without a single black person or the Great Plains and the Southwest without a single Indian?

    Although aesthetically pleasing, the choice for Oklahoma's quarter is probably the worst conceptually. C'mon, voters...Oklahoma is synonymous with Indian Territory. Even today, I bet many people would associate Oklahoma with Indians (perhaps after football and oil wells). I doubt many people would associate it with the scissor-tailed flycatcher.

    The lack of Indians is ironic considering their long history on US coins. The Indian head penny, buffalo nickel, and Sacagawea dollar are only the most well-known examples. The Republic didn't fall when these Indians appeared on coins, so why the timidity in the state quarter program?

    With 10 or more of the 50 quarters having a minority element, it would've conveyed the fact that the US is at least 20% non-white. (It's actually more like 30% non-white.) But the quarter program, like many other aspects of our culture, covers up this reality. Looking at the selected designs, you get the impression that our history is comprised of founding fathers, pioneers, and inventors as well as natural wonders and resources. What you don't get is any sense that Indians occupied the entire country, that Hispanics ruled a third of it, or that it was built on the backs of blacks and immigrants.

    Summarizing the quarters' message: The first (Anglo) Americans arrived by ship, fought for liberty, marched westward, found great beauty, and built great cities and monuments. It's your basic American fairy tale all wrapped up in 100 bits (two bits = one quarter). Too bad Hawaii didn't go with Pearl Harbor or a Dole pineapple plantation, or it would've been a sweep.

    But I guess it could've been worse. We should be thankful that South Carolina didn't choose the Confederate flag, Texas didn't choose John Wayne and the Alamo, and Utah didn't choose Brigham Young and his multiple wives. Yippee.


    writerfella said...

    Writerfella here --
    Rob, you're starting to look a whole lot better to writerfella. Note that in writerfella's posts on the subject, he asked a specific question: what does it all mean? You answered that question and you answered it well. writerfella likely will send you 40 Oklahoma quarter dollar coins when they debut in 2008. That does equal your usual AIGC 'glad-hand', does it not?
    All Best
    Russ Bates

    Rob said...

    That's rare praise coming from you, Russ.

    By the way...AIGC? Is that the American Indian Graduate Center? The Alumni Inter-Greek Council? The Association of Independent General Counsel?

    Perhaps you were thinking of NIGA, the National Indian Gaming Association. I haven't received one dime from that organization, of course.