When I buy stamps, I always ask for “the writer stamps.” It’s usually a pretty simple request. I ask for the writer stamp du jour, the clerk provides it, I buy it, the end.
On a recent trip to the main office of the U.S. Postal Service here in my hometown, I encountered something different. I’m still not sure what it was, but this is what happened.
The waiting line was long, long enough to engender awkward silences between me and the people standing next to me. We’d start some small talk with the assumption that we wouldn’t be standing there long, and then five minutes later when we were still standing there it was uncomfortable. Every incremental push forward in our line was one breath closer to social relief.
At the window, I made my standard request for the writer stamps. The clerk looked in the drawer and shrugged, “I don’t see any.”
“That’s OK,” I said, wary of upsetting the waiters behind me. “I’ll just take…..”
“Let me go look in the back,” he said.
Well, that’s right nice of you. Hurry back.
Except he didn’t hurry back. He was gone a long time. The people behind me starting pawing the earth. I glanced back repeatedly, smiling weakly and suggesting that I had no idea what the clerk was doing or why.
When he finally reappeared, he had stamps in hand but they were clutched to his chest so I couldn’t see what the images were. He looked and me and said, “OK, I found some stamps. We do have some.”
What’s the drama?
“First, I want to show you these,” he said. “These are so beautiful and they are some of my personal favorites.”
He showed me a very pretty stamp from the American Treasures series. It was an Edward Hopper painting of a sail boat.
“Now I also have these,” he said. He revealed the second stamp, a Black Heritage series stamp of John H. Johnson (1918-2005). I realized to my dismay that the clerk was afraid.
He was afraid to show me a stamp of a black man.
What did he think, that when I said writer I really meant sailboat? That I don’t think African-Americans are writers? That girls only like purty things with pastels and sunshine? That I would call his supervisor for daring to try to sell me a Black Heritage stamp when I’m white and I said I wanted a writer stamp so surely I must have meant a white writer?
The truly strange thing is that to this day as I write this, I’m still not angry with this clerk. He went out of his way to help me. He did what I asked him to do. What stays with me is that he assumed I didn’t want this stamp. What he did was make me want this stamp even more, and make me want you to want it, too.
Forever stamps are always equal in value to the current First-Class Mail one-ounce rate.
This man was incredible, and I never knew his name before my Post Office story. Thank you, strange clerk. You helped me more than you know.
John Johnson. Forever.
(Right about now, I wonder what’s happening at Karan-a-Go-Go…….)
In 2012, the Postal Service® is pleased to honor John H. Johnson, the trailblazing publisher of Ebony, Jet, and other magazines. Johnson overcame poverty and racism to build a business empire embracing magazines, radio stations, cosmetics, and more. His magazines portrayed black people positively at a time when such representation was rare, and played an important role in the civil rights movement.
His unwillingness to accept defeat was a key to Johnson’s success. When he was unable to buy a lot in downtown Chicago because of his skin color, he hired a white lawyer who bought the land in trust. Thus, Johnson became the first black person to build a major building in Chicago’s Loop, where Johnson Publishing still has its headquarters.
As Johnson’s influence, accomplishments, and fortune grew, he received many prizes and honors. He joined Vice President Richard Nixon on a goodwill tour of Africa and served as a Special United States Ambassador for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) awarded him its prestigious Spingarn Medal in 1966. Six years later, in 1972, his industry peers named him publisher of the year — a prize Johnson compared to winning an Oscar. In presenting Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996, President Bill Clinton lauded him for giving hope to African-Americans during difficult times. A panel of experts polled by Baylor University in 2003 named Johnson “the greatest minority entrepreneur in American history.” That same year, Howard University named its journalism school after him.
The John H. Johnson (Forever®) stamp, designed by Postal Service art director Howard Paine, features a color photograph of Johnson taken by Bachrach Studios. The photographer was David McCann.
The U.S. Postal Service has recognized the achievements of prominent African-Americans through the Black Heritage series since 1978. This stamp honoring Johnson is the 35th stamp in that series, which highlights outstanding individuals who helped shape American culture.
The stamp is being issued as a Forever stamp. Forever stamps are always equal in value to the current First-Class Mail one-ounce rate.
26 thoughts on “Esse-a-Go-Go: The Post Office Story”
I’m surprised you’re surprised. I think he had good reason to be hesitant.
Like what, for example?
I, too am confused by that comment.
Nice piece, Elizabeth. Loved “pawed the earth.” Thanks for cluing me in to who John Johnson is. I had no idea either.
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Thanks for including the bio on Mr. Johnson. I learned something new before 9 am on a Monday.
I know, right? Incredible that I did not know his name or anything of his impressive achievements.
I love the Esse-a-Go-Go idea and I enjoyed reading this first installment.
Great story. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks for reading!
Look at the new hate groups at SPLC website. WV had a white supremacist on the ballot. If you want to see a hate group up close look at the National Alliance
In Hillsboro. I think with the election of President Obama racism is at an all time high.
I don’t want to put words in your mouth, I just want to understand your perception of his behavior. Are you saying you think he thought I was potentially a white supremacist or potentially of that mindset?
I didn’t want to get into it in any detail in the story, but I DID have the feeling that he was fearful of my reaction. The way he held the image to his chest, and felt the need to talk to be about what he was going to show me before he showed me just seemed so odd. Dude, these are stamps. What do you think I’m going to do, freak out over “the greatest minority entrepreneur in American history”?
I don’t know. I shared this story because it was so odd, and I was curious what anyone else’s take on it would be.
There are parts of this that I do not admire. And yet I have to say that some people — apparently — would never have brought me the stamp in the first place.
Yes, I think he thought he might possibly offend you. That’s a sad and telling thing to happen. I don’t think it’s a particularly odd story, I think it is a story about our time.
Wow. That’s insane.
I don ‘t think he thought you were a white supremacist but I think it did occur to him you might be offended. You haven’t felt a difference? It showed a kind of courage to show you the stamps.
I respect your opinion, and I am glad you are sharing it, but I have to call bullshit (sorry) on the idea that there is anything courageous about functioning as if an American role model and inspiration is something to be ashamed of.
This whole concept that a black president could be so threatening to a large chunk of people is just nuts to me. It’s now affecting my stamp purchases? Really? That is crazy. I struggle to believe this is real.
When I read about Mr. Johnson, all I felt was inspired. God bless the US Post Office, keep doing what you’re going people! We need education. Apparently it’s not coming from other places, so it’s on you!
Now that I’ve read the comments, and re-read the story, let me pose this question: what makes you think it was the fact that the stamp depicted an African-American writer that caused him to hesitate as opposed to, say, a male writer? Just some food for thought because I think it’s just as interesting to question our own perceptions as it is to question another person’s motivation.
I completely agree! I don’t know for sure, and will never know I suppose.
It wasn’t the “maleness,” as I mentioned I had purchased the Mark Twain stamp last time before he went to the back.
I think you are so right, in the end this may be more about me than about anyone else, and that is one reason I wanted to write about it. Why DID I assume the man’s race was the reason for his hesitancy? I guess because I couldn’t think of any other reason.
When I buy stamps for James River Writers in Richmond, VA, I always ask for “the literary stamps,” and I’m really glad to tell you that last week, I did not get the same hesitation on the part of the post office clerk. Instead, he pulled out the Johnson stamps and said, “Does this count as literary to you?” I didn’t know who John Johnson was, so I asked the clerk to flip over the page so we could read the description. (Yes, there were a lot of people in line behind me… but… oh, well…) At a glance I saw “publisher of Ebony,” and said, “Magazine publisher? Works for me. I’ll take a hundred.” And that was that.
Your story is really interesting, as are the comments here. And I’m curious… was the postal clerk black or white? Then I ask: why do I even want to know that detail? Why would it matter one way or the other? Would I expect the hug-to-the-chest hesitancy to show you the John Johnson stamps to come from a black man or a white man? I don’t know. The story was so bizarre that I’m trying to picture the scene, and also trying to understand the statements from your reader, Debra, above. Meanwhile, personally, I’m really glad to have learned a little bit about John Johnson!
I’m a huge fan of JRW, thanks for visiting the blog!
Thank you, too, for just saying you think it’s a bizarre story. I thought so, too.
The clerk was a white man. But as you say, why do we want to know that? The whole thing to me is a study in assumptions. This clerk may have not meant anything racist, there could be hundreds of other explanations for his actions.
Though none readily come to mind. Hmmmm. An eternal mystery that leaves one thinking about the motivations of others, as well as our own perceptions and where they come from……
Great stories always make you feel like a fly on the wall and give you a perspective of the whole room or scene. This short story packs it all in and leaves us with the main question: Are we to the point in our existence that we rate a person’s talent on what they have accomplished or what we think their outward appearance should tell us what they are capable of performing?
I know what I think and what Elizabeth thinks. I’m saddened by anyone who continues to hold the opinion that someone is inferior because of their skin color or ethnicity is different than their own.
One silly question about stamps. Why don’t they have all the stamps available for sale on a flip page display instead of “in the back?”
Jim, you’re a man after my own heart. I am obsessed with postage, and I suppose they keep it “in the back” to avoid people like me rushing the stage every time new stamps come out!
Thank you for the kind words about the story. Sometimes real life is all you need for a good story!
Wow, lots of comments. There’s gonna be a run on those stamps now.
Howdy, I am just reading this and find the comments quite interesting. As for John Johnson, I grew up with Ebony and Jet Magazines so I have been familiar with him all my life. He sold his mother’s furniture to start that magazine (which his daughter runs today). Bill Cosby used to joke with him “did you ever pay your mother back?”
But, to be honest, as for the postal clerk, perhaps he had tried to offer those stamps to other white patrons before and got rebuked, every so politely, but rebuked nonetheless. It might explain why he was so timid. And, on another note, I was once in the Charleston Towne Center Mall with my friend Alonzo (who is also black) and the black lady who handed me my stamps automatically just handed me black stamps. Alonzo and I started teasing her about it and we all got a good laugh out of it, but the truth of the matter is – she too made an assumption.