A Hattie McDaniel U.S. Mail Stamp?

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The addition of Gone with the Wind actress Hattie McDaniel to the pantheon of postage-stamp honorees has commentator Robin Washington, editorial page editor of The Duluth News Tribune in Minnesota, questioning the standards set for honoring African Americans.

ED GORDON, host:

When you get your face on a postage stamp, it's usually a sign of supreme achievement in your field. And often when a person of color receives this honor, it also marks a landmark achievement. But a recent addition this list has commentator Robin Washington wondering how this face ended up in mailboxes around the country, and what this says about how the contributions of black Americans are acknowledged.

Mr. ROBIN WASHINGTON (Editorial Editor, Duluth News Tribune): Hattie McDaniel? Hattie McDaniel? If you haven't seen it yet, she's the latest face in the U.S. Postal Services Black Heritage stamp series. And while I understand the reasons for the Gone with the Wind Oscar winner doing what she did when she did it, I still can't look at her face without hearing: I don't know nothin' about birthin' no babies.

Oops, I take that back. That was Butterfly McQueen, but if I get them confused, it's because I've never been able to sit through Gone with the Wind. Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those Negroes still so traumatized by slavery that I burst into tears every time I see a cotton field. In fact, I'm all about acknowledging the good and bad of black history, including the less than honorable acts so many folks participated in when the closest most black people could get to the silver screen was the balcony of a Jim Crow theater.

Maybe they played subservient characters because they had to. McDaniel herself said it best, commenting, why should I complain about making $7,000 a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making seven dollars a week being one.

Yet most people putting a stamp on a birthday card, or electric bill, aren't likely to know that. Nor are they likely to know the suggestions by some scholars that she indeed, was an Oscar-deserving actress who occasionally was able to raise an eyebrow at Massa and secretly undermine the whole system. Although her picture is positive enough and better looking than Aunt Jemima, you won't confuse her for Angela Davis or a member of the French Underground.

So what we're left with for all America to celebrate is a black maid from the 1930s, which, even if she does deserve her due, is a perplexing addition to a stamp series that includes Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Benjamin Banneker, Whitney Young, Jackie Robinson, Scott Joplin, Carter Woodson, Sojourner Truth, and on and on and on and on.

McDaniel could merit inclusion as the only black person to win an Academy Award who's actually eligible for a stamp. Except for U.S. presidents, postal service rules require people to be dead 10 years before being considered. That means if you want to mail a letter with Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Halle Berry, or Whoopie Goldberg on it, you have to wait a while.

In the meantime, to celebrate black actors, I'd be happy to see a Dorothy Dandridge stamp or use a Paul Robeson one. Oh, uh-oh, that's just 37 cents. Anyone have a two-cent stamp?

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GORDON: Robin Washington is the editorial page editor of the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minnesota.

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GORDON: This is NPR News.

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