Black Writers through the Mail

Article excerpt

"I am a black woman/ tall as a cypress/ strong/ beyond all definition still/ defying place/ and time/ and circumstance/ assailed/ impervious/indestructible/ Look/ on me and be/ renewed"

Those lines, penned by African-American poet Mari Evans in the early 1960s, released me from the imprisonment of hot combs, pink cushioned rollers, and Nadinola bleaching cream. I was free to be my black self, to celebrate my culture without anger or apology. Those first steps to self-actualization guided by poets like Ms. Evans later led to full acceptance of my American citizenship and the rights it entails. And though I met her only once during a poetry festival in the early 1970s, sponsored by novelist Margaret Walker Alexander at Jackson State College, the powerful message of Ms. Evans' poetry has remained with me.

Now, thanks to E. Ethelbert Miller, thousands of people will be introduced to Ms. Evans and other African-American writers. The director of Howard University's Afro-American Resource Center, Mr. Miller is the author or editor of a half-dozen books of poetry including "In Search of Color Everywhere." While in Bahrain for a cultural exchange tour, he happened on an article about an American company that designs postage stamps for foreign countries.

The Inter-Governmental Philatelic Corporation (IGPC) produces stamps with the usual array of heroes, flags and presidents. But it uses stamps to introduce pop culture: The Gambia has martial arts hero Jackie Chan. Ghana has the mush-mouthed Sylvester Stallone, and Nicaragua has John Lennon. (In high school I would scream just at the mention of his name.)

Why not a series featuring African-American literary artists, thought Mr. Miller. Anyone who knows the dynamic writer-professor knows ideas in his hands never sit idle - they blossom. "I wrote to them," he says, as if that was his only option. Not surprisingly the company wrote back. Great, it said, blessing the concept, but passing the work to Mr. Miller.

In the United States, getting a series of stamps released is more than a notion. A Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC), appointed by the Postmaster General, trolls 40,000 suggestions each year for stamp subjects and designs. The group meets four times a year in Washington, D.C.

The CSAC uses 12 criteria for selecting the recommendations forwarded to the postmaster. For example: Stamps are not issued to honor religious institutions or individuals whose principal achievements are associated with religious undertakings or beliefs; so don't look for a Mother Teresa stamp. And, only events and themes of "widespread national appeal and significance are considered for commemoration."

The committee also doesn't consider a subject for a stamp unless that person has been dead for 10 years; an exception is sometimes made with presidents. Richard Nixon got his stamp one year after his death. The entire selection process can take as long as three years before a stamp is actually issued, according to U.S. Postal Service spokesperson Don Smeraldi. …