Sometimes events overtake plans. My plans just got trampled!
Two years ago, the U.S. Postal Service introduced a new series of stamps in its American Treasures Series, celebrating the quilters of Gee's Bend, Ala.
Gee's Bend is a remote black enclave on the Alabama River, near Selma. Working in dreadful poverty and isolation for generations, the woman there stitched bold and beautiful quilts, like none other in the world. It is said that one of the inspirations for their work was the newspaper- and magazine-collages used for insulation on the inside walls of their rural homes in poverty-stricken Alabama. The women of Gee's Bend passed their skills down through at least six generations, largely unnoticed to the outside world
Then, they were discovered.
In 2002, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, presented an exhibition of 70 masterpieces in an exhibit called "The Quilts of Gee's Bend." The exhibit was accompanied by two companion books, The Quilts of Gee's Bend, and Gee's Bend: The Women and Their Quilts, as well as a documentary video on the quilters.
The exhibit traveled to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and other museums on its 12-city American tour, winning further acclaim at every stop. It was reported on by Newsweek, National Public Radio, Art in America, CBS News, PBS's NewsHour, Oprah's O magazine, even Martha Stewart Living, among hundreds of print and broadcast media. Art critics compared the quilts to the works of Matisse and Klee. The New York Times called the quilts "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced."
Perhaps the greatest recognition came in 2006, when the Postal Service released a collection of stamps featuring 10 Gee's Bend quilts.
A few months ago, it occurred to me that there was something wrong with this picture. I begrudge the good people of Gee's Bend nothing whatsoever. They deserve every honor and recognition they have received, but they have come to this game rather late.
The sweetgrass basket makers of Mt. Pleasant have at least 200 years of tradition on the Benders, as those Alabama folks like to call themselves. Furthermore, the sweetgrass basket makers can trace their ancient craft directly to the shores of Africa. The quilters of Gee's Bend inherit their skills and materials from American soil.
Sweetgrass baskets have been the subject of academic conferences, museum exhibits (including a recent one at the Gibbes Museum of Art), an annual cultural arts festival in Mt. Pleasant and several books (including Dale Rosengarten's Row Upon Row). But the U.S. Postal Service has yet to come forward and offer this ancient and indigenous craft the recognition of a stamp.
I took it upon myself to address this oversight. Some months ago, I determined that I would write to the Postal Service, inform them of their error and demand redress. I said I would do it next week — no later than next month. I had been saying that since about April.
Then, two weeks ago, Mary Jackson, the doyenne of local basket makers, received an honor that even the quilters of Gee's Bend had never dreamed of. She was named a recipient of a $500,000 "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Since 1981, the MacArthur Foundation has recognized 781 fellows with what is perhaps the most prestigious award on the planet, after the Nobel Prize. The award recognized her craft and innovation, as well as her contribution to the cultural legacy of basket making.
Realizing the moment was perfect, but may quickly pass, I fired off a letter to the Postal Service, making my case. I sent with it news clips about Mary Jackson's genius grant and a copy of Row Upon Row. I also cc-ed the letter to the eight members of South Carolina's congressional delegation, urging them to twist some arms at the USPS to help make this thing happen.
You can help hasten the day when Americans can stick sweetgrass stamps on their cards and letters. First, write a brief letter to the Postal Service, telling them why you think the sweetgrass basket makers of Mt. Pleasant are worthy of their own stamp. Address your letter to the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee c/o Stamp Development, U.S. Postal Service, 1735 North Lynn St., Suite 5013, Arlington, VA 22209-6432.
Next, address letters to every member of the state congressional delegation, making your argument to them. Yes, I know they are a caucus of pompous empty suits, but if they hear from enough of us, they might remember what we sent them to Washington to do.
After the sweetgrass basket tradition is recognized by the Postal Service, I will redouble my efforts to have the name of the Arthur Ravenel Bridge changed to Basket Makers Bridge.