Checking the Boxes

I happened to come across my first 2022 quarter today. There’s a new portrait of George Washington on the face – and Maya Angelou on the obverse. Now even though I haven’t read anything of hers, I understand she’s a very great writer and deserves more than just a few accolades. But being put on a quarter? There’s plenty of worthy Americans that should be honored with an appearance on our money, but why her in particular?

Might it have something to do with her being a black woman with a “tragic backstory”?

Are we honoring her because of her writing skills, or because she checks off a lot of boxes?

I’m reminded of another female black writer, Octavia Butler. She’s gained quite a bit of fame as a science fiction writer; she’s used as an example of a science fiction writer when that topic comes up in high schools, and there was even talk of putting her on a postage stamp.

(Turns out the honor of being the first science fiction writer to appear on a U.S. Postage Stamp is going to Ursula K. Le Guin. I can’t complain about that choice, but I’d have thought it would have gone years ago to someone like Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov; writers who are well-known outside the genre. I’m honestly amazed it took this long. After all, the genre was created here in the U.S. You can argue that European writers like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne were among the first writers to be widely known for their work in science fiction, but it was American editors like Hugo Gernsback, John W. Campbell Jr., and Donald Wollheim who basically said this subset of literature is its own genre, and this is what defines it. And I WILL fight you on that.)

I’ve read some of her short fiction, and it’s really good. But is it good enough to justify all the accolades? I’m not a critical enough reader, nor am I sufficiently widely-read, to be able to make that judgment.

But I do know that Butler was female, black, came from a very poor background, and happened to be a lesbian. That’s pretty much a “Grand Slam” of “woke” boxes right there. I can’t help but wonder if she’s getting praise for all that instead of the quality of her work.

While one should give “marginalized” creators a bit of a boost when considering their rank among the Greats, one can easily fall into a trap. It’s possible to overpraise people who don’t really deserve it (1), or overlook people who deserve equal praise (2).

Speaking of science fiction writers, here’s one relevant case to challenge your beliefs. I can easily recommend the novella “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” by James Tiptree Jr. It’s about a trio of astronauts that get zapped into the future, and return to Earth to find that all men have died out, and the place is inhabited solely by women. Tiptree takes that old hackneyed idea and gives it a right proper treatment. The story won ALL the awards, only adding to Tiptree’s reputation.

Tip” never showed up to collect any of the awards it – or any other of their stories – earned, they refused to appear in person at any conventions or events, and would even communicate only in writing. People figured that the name was a pseudonym for someone who was well known and respected for something outside of science fiction, and they didn’t want their lives crossing. No big deal; being a bit of a recluse wasn’t unheard of. People loved the stories, and that was good enough.

Then, after her death, it came out that “James Tiptree Jr.” was actually Alice Sheldon.

Now, did knowing the stories were written by a woman change their quality in any way? Could it have? Should it have?

So, are you praising the person for their work, or for who they are?


1. People like to hold up Lady Ada Lovelace for, thanks to her work with Charles Babbage, being an early “computer scientist”. But when you actually go to the source material, her entire contribution wasn’t much more than adding an appendix – at Babbage’s suggestion – to a work on algorithms that she was translating. As far as fighting to succeed in a male-dominated field, well, she came from a wealthy family (the “Lady” title was inherited), and could easily afford to indulge her mathematical hobby. Babbage was one of the people hired to tutor her.


2. Marie Curie is the archetype here. An outstanding physicist who happened to come along just when radioactivity was being discovered, she got in at the ground floor and naturally rose to the top. But that leaves out the contributions of her husband, colleague, and full partner Pierre Curie. Had he not died in a traffic accident at the age of 46, it’s very likely he would had shared her 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (it is clearly specified in Alfred Nobel’s will that they can’t be given to dead people), and accompanied her at all those Solvay Conferences. He had his own groundbreaking career before he met her; he did a lot of work in magnetism and identified what is known as the “Curie Point” (the temperature at which a substance loses its magnetic properties), and with his brother Paul-Jacques pioneered the study of piezoelectricity (the phenomenon that keeps all those quartz timepieces ticking accurately).


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