Author: DONN FRY
Topics: blacks, writers, stamps, international aspects.

What American writer wouldn't love to be immortalized on a United States postage stamp? Right up there with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, 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 significant 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 well as six deceased black American writers, are being honored on new postage stamps from the African nations of Ghana and Uganda.
The stamps will be officially issued Thursday in a ceremony at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Most of the living honorees and families of the others will be on hand.

"I'm delighted to see this thing come to fruition," says Johnson, who travels to Washington this week. "It really is the brainchild 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 off.
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.

Information 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.
The company's 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 Hong 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. (IGPC) - and proposed a series of stamps featuring black American authors. The firm gave him the go-ahead but made it clear the groundwork was his responsibility, including selecting the authors and assembling photographs upon which postage portraits could be based. sensitivity. ith 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.

"I had 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-rights 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 poet.

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 Afro-American 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."

The deceased 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."
Also being honored are Stephen E. 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").

"It isn't 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.
"But the most important thing," he said, "is that each and every one of them is a superb craftsman."
Johnson was 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.
"I do 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."

He also 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. Besides honoring 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.

Literacy aside, 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."
Quite simply: 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.

"Stamps are 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.

Foreign 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.
Such celebrity stamps, however, constitute only about 10 percent of the work that IGPC does for its 70-plus client nations, which include much of Africa, most of the Caribbean, about half of South America and many Pacific island states.

"There are 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. "This stamp project shows," he says, "that what Toni Morrison says is true: African-American literature is pan-African literature now."

Copyright (c) 1997 The Seattle Times.