African-American Artist William H. Johnson Honored with New Stamp Today

Today the U.S. Postal Service issues a stamp in the honor of William H. Johnson (1901-1970), one of the nation’s foremost African-American artists and a major figure in 20th-century American art. He is best known for his dramatic Scandinavian landscapes and colorful, folk-inspired scenes of African-American daily life.

The stamp, which is the 11th in the American Treasures series, showcases Flowers (1939-1940), a bold oil-on-plywood rendering of brightly colored blooms on a small red table. The two-dimensional, consciously “naive” style in which Flowers was painted was one of the many techniques of modernist abstraction and “primitive” art adapted by Johnson during his career.

William Henry Johnson was born March 18, 1901, in Florence, South Carolina. During his childhood he practiced drawing by copying comic strips from the newspaper. At the age of 17 he went to live with his uncle in Harlem. He worked at a variety of jobs before saving enough money to pay tuition at the prestigious National Academy of Design in New York City, where he was admitted in 1921. During the years he studied at the academy, Johnson took most of his classes from the noted painter Charles Webster Hawthorne, who became his mentor and friend. For three summers, Johnson also attended Hawthorne’s Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on a work/study arrangement.

Digital Color Postmark Keepsake (click to order)

In 1926, with funds raised by Hawthorne, Johnson left the U.S. to study modernism in Paris and in the south of France. In November 1929, he returned briefly to New York and set up a studio in Harlem. The following year he received the William E. Harmon Foundation’s gold medal for Distinguished Achievements Among Negroes in the Fine Arts Field.

In May 1930, Johnson moved to Denmark and married textile artist Holcha Krake, whom he had met in France. The couple first made their home in Kerteminde, a Danish fishing village, and later in Norway. For several years they exhibited jointly and traveled throughout Scandinavia, Europe, and North Africa. During this period, Johnson’s work began to reflect his interest in primitivism and folk art.

In November 1938 the couple moved to New York City to escape impending war in Europe. Johnson joined the WPA Federal Art Project in May 1939 and was assigned to teach at the Harlem Community Art Center. In August of that year, he transferred to the WPA mural project. His first major solo exhibition in New York opened in May 1941.

Following his wife’s death in 1944, Johnson’s physical and mental health declined dramatically. He spent the last 23 years of his life in a mental institution on Long Island, where he died on April 13, 1970.

Inspired by Johnson’s life story, the William H. Johnson Foundation for the Arts was established in 2001 to provide economic assistance to African-American artists early in their careers. In 2009, four of Johnson’s paintings were chosen for display in the White House. From 2011 through 2014, a Smithsonian traveling exhibition, “William H. Johnson: An American Modern,” will cross the country showcasing 20 works that highlight key stages in Johnson’s career.

The William H. Johnson stamp is being issued as a Forever® stamp. Forever stamps are always equal in value to the current First-Class Mail one-ounce rate.

Gwendolyn Brooks: Master at Weaving Lyric Tales of Urban Life

Gwendolyn Brooks is best remembered for distinctive, lyrical portraits of everyday urban life. Her poems combine traditional forms—such as the sonnet and ballad—with experimental free verse, jazz and blues poetry, and colloquial language. A committed voice against sexual and racial oppression, Brooks, who determinedly described herself as Black, was the first Black American to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, and grew up in Chicago, Illinois. A shy and reticent girl, she poured her emotions and experiences into poetry, which she began writing before age ten. In 1930, she published her first poem, and she continued to publish throughout her teens and into her twenties. By the mid-1940s, Brooks’s poetry had begun to win awards and critical recognition.

Brooks found much of the inspiration for her first collection, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), in the sights and sounds of her own neighborhood. “We wonder. But not well! not for a minute! / Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now, / We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it,” she writes in “kitchenette building.” Once characteristic of Chicago’s South Side, kitchenettes were small apartments housing several families who shared one bathroom. In these cramped, crowded spaces, dreams and ambitions had to compete with “onion fumes” and “yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall.” Yet among the poverty and struggle of daily living, beauty and love persisted. “It was quite a time for loving. It was midnight. It was May,” writes Brooks in “the old-marrieds.” “But in the crowding darkness not a word did they say.”

Brooks was especially attuned to the circumscribed, sometimes luminous lives of Black women. For her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Annie Allen (1949), Brooks focused on just one woman and followed her life from birth to adulthood. At the heart of the collection is “The Anniad,” an elaborate and lengthy piece about Annie’s marriage and disillusionment as dreams give way to reality. Even as “the culprit magics fade,” however, Annie finds pleasure in the world around her: “Hugging old and Sunday sun / Kissing in her kitchenette / The minuets of memory.”

From the beginning of her career, Brooks demonstrated a controlled mastery of traditional poetic structures such as the sonnet, ballad, and epic, yet she never felt constrained by them. Arguably her most famous poem, “We Real Cool” elevates the short lyric to a new level of conciseness while also infusing the verse with a contemporary swinging rhythm:

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

Brooks frequently experimented with rhyme and meter, playing with both conventional and unconventional forms, and even invented a new hybrid form, the “sonnet-ballad.”

Perhaps best known for her poems about the intimate experiences and emotions of individuals, Brooks also addressed national and international issues. “Gay Chaps at the Bar,” a sequence of 12 sonnets, was based on letters Brooks received from Black soldiers serving in World War II. “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock” considers the struggle to desegregate the nation’s public schools.

Published in 1968, In the Mecca was nominated for the National Book Award. The collection included the monumental “In the Mecca,” in which the faded grandeur of the decaying Mecca building mirrors the condition of many Blacks at the time.

Notecard Set (click to order)

In addition to numerous honorary degrees, Brooks received a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts. She served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (the position later renamed Poet Laureate) from 1985 to 1986 and as Poet Laureate of Illinois from 1968 until her death. In addition to poetry, she published two unconventional autobiographies, Report from Part One (1972) and Report from Part Two (1996). The semi-autobiographical Maud Martha, her only novel, was published in 1953.

Gwendolyn Brooks is one of ten poets featured on the Twentieth-Century Poets pane. The stamps will be issued on April 21 in Los Angeles, California, but you can preorder them today!

Happy Birthday, Muddy Waters!

Born today in Mississippi, Muddy Waters was already a musician and performer by age 10: He sang and played the harmonica, and he had learned to play his own homemade guitar. As a young man he worked in the cotton fields near his grandmother’s home in Clarksdale, but he continued his life in music.

In 1941 and again in 1942, Muddy Waters was recorded playing blues songs at his house in Stovall, Mississippi, by folklorist and musicologist Alan Lomax on behalf of the Library of Congress. He went on to perform in New Orleans, Memphis, and Chicago, and his electric “slide guitar” appealed to audiences throughout the South. By the time of his death in 1983, Muddy Waters had become an international sensation.

Poet Robert Hayden Finds Universal Truths in American Experience

The poems of Robert Hayden reflect his brilliant craftsmanship, his historical conscience, and his gift for storytelling. Many of his works, such as “Middle Passage” and “Runagate Runagate,” render aspects of the black American experience with unforgettable vividness. Others are more personal: “Those Winter Sundays” describes his father’s routine of rising early to tend to the fireplace and other chores, and becomes an appreciation for such habitual expressions of love.

Hayden was born Asa Bundy Sheffey on August 4, 1913, in Detroit, Michigan, where he grew up. He was still an infant when his biological parents gave him to a local couple, William and Sue Ellen Hayden, who raised him. He was bookish, wore thick eyeglasses, and was teased by other children; as an adolescent, he felt guilt and shame when his family received welfare assistance during the Depression.

He found consolation in poetry. He read the poets of the day, among them Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes. Cullen, especially, was influential for the way his work combined racial awareness with a command of traditional poetics. By the time Hayden went to high school, he knew he wanted to be a poet.

As a student at Detroit City College (later Wayne State University), where he studied languages, Hayden published poems in the school paper. Beginning in 1936, he worked for the Federal Writers’ Project researching black history and folklore, giving him a store of knowledge from which he drew for his poems. His first book, Heart-Shape in the Dust, was published in 1940. Hayden would come to regard this collection of traditional, imitative verse as apprentice work.

In 1944, Hayden received his master’s degree in English from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he studied under W. H. Auden. In 1946, he took a job at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he taught literature until 1968. The following year, he returned to the University of Michigan, where he was on the faculty until his death on February 25, 1980.

As Hayden’s books of mature work appeared—among them A Ballad of Remembrance (1962), Words in the Mourning Time (1970), Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems (1975), and American Journal (1978)—his reputation and popularity grew. He is now recognized as one of America’s foremost poets, the author of many works considered classics.

In the terrifying “Night, Death, Mississippi,” Hayden inhabits the mind of an old man who fondly recalls taking part in lynching. He pays tribute to singer Bessie Smith in “Homage to the Empress of the Blues” and brings a hackneyed commercial character to glorious life in “Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves.” One of Hayden’s most celebrated works, “Middle Passage,” presents a kaleidoscopic look at the slave trade. In “Runagate Runagate,” he imagines his way into the world of escaping slaves. (The word “runagate,” from renegade, was used to designate a runaway.) The latter poem features Harriet Tubman conducting passengers on the Underground Railroad “through swamp and savanna… / over trestles of dew, through caves of the wish,” with the “first stop Mercy and the last Hallelujah.”

In “Monet’s ‘Waterlilies’,” Hayden wrote about a painting he loved. He wrote several poems about his Bahá’í religious faith, which bolstered his belief in the oneness of all humanity and in the spiritual value of the arts. “[American Journal],” a longer piece from his final collection, was written from the point of view of an extraterrestrial visitor (who is indifferent to punctuation): “how best describe these aliens in my / reports to the Counselors”?

Hayden wanted to be known not as a black poet, but simply as an American poet.

Digital Color Postmark Keepsake (click to order)

“American life is a point of departure for me into an awareness of the universal,” he told an interviewer. In 1975, he was elected Fellow of the Academy of American Poets. He won many prizes, including several honorary degrees and an invitation to read at the Carter White House. In 1976, he was appointed Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (the position later renamed Poet Laureate)—making him the first African American to receive this honor.

Robert Hayden is one of ten poets featured on the Twentieth-Century Poets pane. The stamps will be issued on April 21 in Los Angeles, California, but you can preorder them today!

Happy Birthday, William H. Johnson!

“I myself feel like a primitive man, like one who is at the same time both a primitive and a cultured painter.”

—William H. Johnson

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Born on March 18, 1901 in Florence, South Carolina, William Henry Johnson is one of our country’s foremost African-American artists. Recognized today as a major figure of 20th-century American art, he is best known for his dramatic Scandinavian landscapes and colorful, folk-inspired scenes of African-American daily life.

During his childhood Johnson practiced drawing by copying comic strips from the newspaper. At the age of 17 he went to live with his uncle in Harlem. He worked at a variety of jobs before saving enough money to pay tuition at the prestigious National Academy of Design in New York City, where he was admitted in 1921. During the years he studied at the academy, Johnson took most of his classes from the noted painter Charles Webster Hawthorne, who became his mentor and friend. For three summers, Johnson also attended Hawthorne’s Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on a work/study arrangement.

In 1926, with funds raised by Hawthorne, Johnson left the U.S. to study modernism in Paris and in the south of France. In November 1929, he returned briefly to New York and set up a studio in Harlem. The following year he received the William E. Harmon Foundation’s gold medal for Distinguished Achievements Among Negroes in the Fine Arts Field.

In May 1930, Johnson moved to Denmark and married textile artist Holcha Krake, whom he had met in France. The couple first made their home in Kerteminde, a Danish fishing village, and later in Norway. For several years they exhibited jointly and traveled throughout Scandinavia, Europe, and North Africa. During this period, Johnson’s work began to reflect his interest in primitivism and folk art.

In November 1938 the couple moved to New York City to escape impending war in Europe. Johnson joined the WPA Federal Art Project in May 1939 and was assigned to teach at the Harlem Community Art Center. In August of that year, he transferred to the WPA mural project. His first major solo exhibition in New York opened in May 1941.

Following his wife’s death in 1944, Johnson’s physical and mental health declined dramatically. He spent the last 23 years of his life in a mental institution on Long Island, where he died on April 13, 1970.

Scheduled for issuance on April 11, the William H. Johnson stamp, featuring still-life Flowers, is being issued as a Forever® stamp. Forever stamps are always equal in value to the current First-Class Mail one-ounce rate.