Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Julia de Burgos stamp dismissed?


Commentary


By Steven Maginnis



There are few people more deserving of commemoration on a United States postage stamp than Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos.  De Burgos, who lived from 1914 to 1953, grew up in poverty in Puerto Rico but managed to go to college through a scholarship and become a teacher - effectively pulling herself up by her own bootstraps.  Later, through involvement with the Puerto Rican Nationalist party, she became a full-time writer and wrote about her love of Puerto Rico, the social struggles of the poor and oppressed, and her own feelings of entrapment and confinement. "Writing in the 1930s through the 1950s," one reviewer for Publishers Weekly, commented, "de Burgos was ahead of her time in grasping connections between history, the body, politics, love, self-negation and feminism that would later prove to be the foundations for writers like [Adrienne] Rich and [Sylvia] Plath."    
In September 2010, Julia de Burgos - who died of pneumonia in New York City in 1953 and was initially buried anonymously because her body could not be identified - was honored with a postage stamp in the U.S. Postal Service's Literary Arts Series, a series of commemorative stamps dating back to 1979 that has honored John Steinbeck, Edith Wharton, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others.  She was thus honored as an American, not an Hispanic American, writer; the de Burgos stamp is part of a mainstream series that's as diverse as America itself (James Baldwin and Richard Wright are among the black authors honored in the series).  In fact, she's the first Hispanic author commemorated in the series.       
But some readers of Linn's Stamp News seem to disagree with the Postal Service's actions. Linn's Stamp News, the nation's premier philatelic (stamp collecting) magazine, holds an annual poll of the most and least popular stamps and postal stationery. When the results came in for the 2010 stamp program poll, the Julia de Burgos commemorative stamp was voted the second worst commemorative design - behind stamps honoring abstract expressionist painters, 548 to 377. It was understandable, as the de Burgos stamp design seemingly reduced the woman to a caricature and featured a background that depicted Puerto Rico's landscape somewhat cartoonish.  
But get this. It was also voted second least necessary commemorative - behind stamps for Sunday comic strips, 563 to 264. 
What are we to make of this? Stamp collectors have always been stereotyped as one thing or another, from overeducated geeks who bore people by showing their collections like they were vacation slides (as Woody Allen depicts them) or, worse, stodgy old white men who don't interact with anyone and prefer to stay home, mounting their precious pieces of postal currency depicting dead presidents.  It's the latter stereotype that this dissing the de Burgos stamp in the 2010 Linn's poll suggests, with an element of racism, misogyny, and sociopolitical arch-conservatism. 
The philatelic community has been fighting this stereotype for a long time.  Black stamp collectors have promoted the hobby to get more black people involved, and the Postal Service itself has issued numerous stamps for blacks and Hispanics.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt, an ardent stamp collector himself, personally saw it to that Booker T. Washington appear on a postage stamp after many black Americans petitioned him to have such a stamp issued.  The ten-cent Booker T. Washington Famous Americans stamp of 1940 marked the first time a black man appeared on a U.S. postage stamp, but its denomination limited its use at a time when first-class postage was only three cents.   As for a black woman on a U.S. postage stamp, that didn't happen until Harriet Tubman was honored in 1978.
So when stamp collectors, who are supposed to know more about history and geography through their experience with stamps, find a commemorative for Julia de Burgos unnecessary, it makes me wonder how many of them open their minds to other cultures and perspectives.  What is it these 264 Linn's readers objected to?  Was it de Burgos's feminist attitudes? Her Puerto Rican nationalism?  Or had they simply never heard of her before?  Were they too disinterested in Puerto Rican culture to at least learn more about Julia de Burgos?
I owe a lot of my own knowledge to stamp collecting.  When I first began the hobby at the age of ten, the U.S. Postal Service was issuing commemoratives honoring the American Revolution Bicentennial, and I learned a lot about how America went from thirteen colonies to becoming one nation through those stamps.  My early collection included foreign stamps, which taught me about countries that had been wiped off the map, like the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which from 1940 to 1991 were forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union.  And yes, I even discovered American poets like Edgar Lee Masters, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost, all of whom I read in school.
Maybe these 264 Linn's readers who thought that a Julia de Burgos stamp was unnecessary should bear in mind that, while Americans working in the English language wrote a lot of our great poetry, they didn't write all of it.  Maybe if they give themselves a chance to learn about Julia de Burgos, they'll find her odes to Puerto Rico as culturally significant as Carl Sandburg's exaltations of Chicago or Robinson Jeffers's musings on California.           
By the way, the kind of stodgy white men most people imagine as stamp collectors are called "Mr. Wilsons," after the grouchy neighbor in "Dennis the Menace," one of the comic strips commemorated in the Postal Service's Sunday comic strips stamps.



Steven Maginnis is a New Jersey-based freelance writer and member in the PRSUN network. To view more of his writings, visit his blog at http://stevenmaginnis.blogspot.com.








Julia de BurgosImage by clarisel via Flickr

         
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