Feb 20, 2007

Postage Stamps and Identity.

So I was chillin' on the US Postal Service website (don't ask), and I decided to see what stamps were on their way this year. I've often said that the fine art of letter-writing is dying out, and with my desire to try to keep it going, I've been fascinated by stamps. Whenever I have to head out to the post office, I end up asking what stamps they have in stock, and usually end up getting some. I hate the U.S. flag stamp because it seems dull and uninteresting, but it's the only stamp that comes in a roll of 100, so I end up getting a mix everytime.

The Jim Henson stamps were a trip. I don't think that I saved any of these.

But I have a sheet of the Malcolm X stamps from when they were released - I distinctly remember Chuck D's lyrics going through my head "most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps." He said he had to change that tune with the issuance of the iconic Malcolm stamp (though an argument has been made that images of Malcolm and Che that have been emblazoned on everything from shirts to beer mugs kind of defeat the core of their message and feed right into the ever churning engine of capitalism. Rolling in their graves, I tell you.

Anyway - so this year, amidst the ubiquitous "Love" and Disney designs, they're actually releasing a stamp to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Mendez v. Westminster, a case in which a group of Latino parents challenged segregation on the basis of national origin. I am so impressed by the Postal Service - the civil rights commemorative stamps were amazing, and this one just seems like a great one to capture a piece of American history that isn't quite as known as Brown v. The Board of Education or other iconic cases in American legal history.

I think it's interesting how people see the inclusion of cultural and other icons on postage stamps as a part of the formula of "making it" in the United States. I know that the push for Diwali stamps (probably a response to the beautiful Eid stamp that the Postal Service has issued for a number of years) is representative of that (and I guess it's definitely cooler than the suspension of alternate side of the street parking).

But still, this quest to be recognized seems to be the theme for the mainstream members of any community that identifies itself as different in the United States. I've been thinking more about the concept of identity and re/pro/claiming such a thing because of a seminar that I'm taking which looks at the lenses of identity in the United States and the way that the law and the legal system have enforced and also turned notions of identity on its head over the centuries. But one of the central questions in class discussion has been whether the identities that we hold on to so dearly are truly important or useful.

One of the articles I just finished reading (The Subject of True Feeling, by Lauren Berlant) posits that a person's identification with a group as a reaction/claiming of collective pain will only go so far, and that the victimization and focus on pain/reparations inherent in organizing a politicized identity in such a fashion can seldom be transcended. I think that the author is questioning the casting of self as victim, and finding solace, comfort, and even community in similarly affected people, effectively centering upon pain as the primary stimulus for self-activation/politicization.

Some of this is relevant here - are we truly caught in an endless cycle of oppressors and the oppressed, in which the relatively calm eras reveal a push for equality and reparations for past wrongs, which forge the most lasting identities of that particular time? And are our assertions of self, and of community, merely reactive, perpetuating an understanding of ourselves that only revolves around that victimization? And is this why, while some white, mainstream folks feel surrounded and beleaguered by the "multicultural throngs" seeking a piece of their pie,
most don't really feel the need to confront issues of identity as often or as intensely as visible and other minorities. Though I guess the White Studies programs and white-only scholarships may call even that premise into question.

Anyway - back to the stamps. Why is it that communities make so much of these little "gimmes" - specifically related to recognition and inclusion in the constructed images of America? It's like some people are trying to photoshop themselves into the iconic snapshot of the "American dream/myth" that's rammed down our throats every day. But ultimately, is the goal of claiming and asserting our identity just so that the majority, or those in power, finally see us? Is that enough? Will we ever even the score?

Or is battling the giant for "separate" actually better than chasing the windmills of "equality"? So yeah, stamps are not just stamps, but still, this thing got out of hand and only touched a few surfaces, so let's see if we can revisit soon.

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