What American writer wouldn't love to be
immortalized on a United States postage stamp? Right up there with George Washington,
Eleanor Roosevelt and, well, Elvis?
In fact, many
writers do appear on U.S. stamps -Mark Twain William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker and Jack
London, to name a few - though the requirements are daunting: Whether Elvis, Abe or
Eleanor you have to be more than merely significance in our nation's history or culture.
You have to be dead.
Which is one
reason that Seattle novelist Charles Johnson and some of his contemporaries in the
African-American writing community are glad that most foreign countries don't have such
strict postal guidelines. Johnson and five other living black authors, as of Ethelbert
Miller, who I think is something of a wizard to get all of this accomplished."
Johnson, who won the
1990 National Book Award for his novel "Middle Passage," was referring to E.
Ethelbert Miller a poet, essayist and self-described "literary activist," who is
director of the African-American Resource Center at Howard University. Miller conceived
the idea and has spent the past year pushing and pulling, coaxing and cajoling to bring it
Even now, Miller
remembers the exact moment his "brainchild" took shape: In a hotel in Bahrain,
during a cultural exchange tour sponsored by the U.S.
A.-Postal salute to black American writers
Agency, he read an article about an American firm that contracts to produce postage stamps
for many foreign countries, mostly small or developing nations, which - unlike the United
States - don't have the facilities to create their own stamps.
work features the obligatory gallery of heroes, flags, presidents and dictators, but the
client countries also occasionally turn to pop culture and newsmakers to carry their name
before the rest of the world: Grenada has a stamp honoring Ronald Reagan, who directed the
American invasion of that tiny Caribbean nation; The Gambia has a stamp featuring [long
Kong action film star Jackie Chan; Ghana has a stamp with Sylvester Stallone, honoring-The
20th anniversary of the "Rocky" movies; and Nicaragua has a John Lennon stamp.
I thought: Why
can't we get some African-American writers on stamps?" says Miller, recalling his
epiphany in Bahrain. Back home in the United States, he wrote the company - the New
York-based Inter-Governmental Philatelic Corp. (IG - and proposed a series of stamps
featuring black American authors' The firm gave him the go but made it clear the
groundwork was his responsibility, including selecting the authors and assembling
photographs upon which postage portraits could be based.
exudes energy and enthusiasm even in a telephone interview knew he had his work cut out
for him: to choose a list of his fellow African-American writers was to walk a minefield
of temperament, taste and political sensitivity.
"I aimed for 20 people and made up a list of writers I
thought were deserving," said Miller, noting that he tried to balance famous and
lesser-known writers, including influential teachers and scholars whose names may not
resonate with the general public. "I talked to a number of major critics - I knew the
problem was going to come in with the living authors, but that's a judgment call.
"One way or
the other, though, it was going to be my list and have my fingerprints on it." He
contacted the living writers and the heirs of the dead ones, seeking permission and
cooperation - a lengthy, complicated process that eventually resulted in agreements with a
dozen authors or authors' estates. As expected, Miller encountered disagreement when he
sought advice along the way.
people say, 'You can't do this, Brother Miller - you can't choose that one!"' he
recalls with a chuckle. "But I did not compromise (my standards). I feel I did the
right thing, and I feel I came up with 12 who are worthy - though I could easily choose 12
others who are just as worthy, and someone else could choose 12 entirely different writers
who also are as worthy
Along with Johnson, whose novel "Dreamer" - based on
the last two years in the life of civil-fights leader Martin Luther King Jr. - will be
published next April, the other living honorees include Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita
Dove, who is a former U.S. poet laureate, and Maya Angelou, the well-known memoirist and
They are joined
by Mari Evans, a college teacher who has published numerous articles, theater pieces,
children's books and four volumes of poetry; Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard scholar
and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for AfroAmerican Research; and June Jordan, a
writer and political activist whose many publications include essays, poetry and the
libretto and lyrics for the John Adams opera " I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then
I Saw the Sky."
writers include novelist Richard Wright (1908-60), the author of "Native Son"
and "Black Boy"; Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), the folklorist and novelist
("Their Eyes Were Watching God") who was a leading light of the Harlem
Renaissance; and Alex Haley (1921-92), the author of "Roots" and "The
Autobiography of Malcolm X."
honored are Stephen F. Henderson (1925-97), who was professor of Afro-American studies and
English literature and director of Howard University's Institute for the Arts and
Humanities; Sterling A. Brown (1901-89), a poet, literary scholar and another longtime
professor at Howard; and Toni Cade Bambara (1939-95), a filmmaker, short story writer and
novelist ("The Salt Eaters").
an ideological selection," Johnson said of the list, expressing pleasure at his own
inclusion. he observed that unlike, say, Angelou and Haley, many are deserving writers who
haven't previously attracted widespread attention in the media.
most important thing," he said, "is that each and every one one is a
especially pleased with the colorful, realistic portraits, which are reproduced from oil
paintings by, ironically, a Seattle-born commercial artist, Gary Aagaard. A Brooklyn
resident since the early '80s, Aagaard was selected by the stamp company IGPC from among a
number of artists who responded to its newspaper ad.
mostly magazine and newspaper work, and just recently I did a children's book," said
Aagaard, who hopes, to move back to Seattle next year to the home he still owns in the
Green Lake neighborhood. "This project was fun, though some of the pictures they gave
me to work with didn't totally capture the writers."
consulted the New York Public Library's picture file before arriving at the final images -
which were approved by the authors or their heirs - and he sampled the work of some of the
writers: Gates' recent memoir, "Colored People," was a favorite. Aagaard also
plans to attend Thursday's ceremony.
American authors of African ancestry, Miller has another goal for the stamp series: to
support literacy efforts in both Ghana and Uganda - and the U.S. as well. The two African
nations will use stamp proceeds to fund their own literacy efforts and also will
contribute to Baltimore's Ripken Learning Center, a literacy organization founded by
Oriole baseball great Cal Ripken Jr.
just why would a small African nation want to feature a group of American writers on their
stamps? More to the point, why would foreign countries choose images from American pop
culture? Liberia, after all, has a Marilyn Monroe stamp, and Uganda has a stamp featuring
Woody, the computer- animated cowboy star of the movie "Toy Story."
American images sell, whether they are of literary stars or movie stars. Not only are
limited-edition stamps a source of revenue for small nations, but they also create name
recognition in a global audience.
goodwill ambassadors - you can send a stamp to the farthest point of the world,"
explains Sam Malamud president of IGPC and the man credited with introducing pop images to
the stamp world in 1979, when he persuaded the Disney company to allow Mickey Mouse on a.
U.N. stamp commemorating the International Year of the Child.
officials agree: "You get a, lot of publicity, in that stamp collectors throughout
the world will know there is a country called Grenada," Leo Roberts, postmaster
general of the island nation, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
stamps, however, constitute only about 10 percent of the work that GPC does for its 70
plus client nations, which include, much of Africa, most of the Caribbe-: an, about half
of South America and many Pacific island states.
some countries that simply won't do celebrity or pop-~ culture stamps. Most tend to be
birds and flags and local leaders," said IGPC spokesman Lonnie Ostrow. He'. noted,
however, that his firm, which produces nearly half the world's: postage stamps each year,
is preparing stamps memorializing Princess: Diana for 21 countries - an international
showcase not lost on Ethelbert Miller in his determination to promote African-American
writers by way of their ancestral continent.
project shows," he, says, "that what Toni Morrison says, is true-
African-American literature is pan-African literature now."