In June 2014, Joanne Braxton, Frances L. and Edwin L. Cummings Professor of English and Africana Studies and director of the Middle Passage Project at William & Mary, attended the memorial service for poet and autobiographer Maya Angelou.
Braxton was included among those invited by the family to join them for the closed service in Winston-Salem, North Carolina because of her closeness to the author and her many contributions to Maya Angelou scholarship.
When Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson, told those gathered at Wake Forest University that everyone in attendance that day was considered part of their “family,” his dignity touched Joanne’s heart.
“I was moved by that generosity of spirit,” said Braxton.
A few months later, she received an opportunity to reflect that spirit of generosity when the United States Postal Service asked her to serve as consultant on a stamp honoring Angelou.
“I answered that it was a sacred work,” she recalled, “and that anyone who did it would be blessed. I was all in.”
That stamp, like all new “forever” stamps, is good for first-class postage in perpetuity. It will be unveiled on Tuesday, April 7 at the Warner Theater in Washington, D.C. Once again, Braxton is among the invited guests.
Shortly after Angelou died in May 2014, the Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee, which works with the U.S. Postal Service to select stamp subjects, began to consider Angelou as an honoree. Work on the stamp’s design and text research began shortly thereafter.
While engaged in that research, Alan Siegel with PhotoAssist, which has had a three-decade relationship with the USPS and has worked on “hundreds” of stamp designs, discovered Braxton.
“I came across Dr. Braxton’s casebook for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” he said. “It was a tremendous resource. I knew she’d be a great consultant, and she was the only one I sought out.
“In addition to helping us understand the book’s themes, Dr. Braxton also helped verify facts about Angelou’s life.”
It was a life into which Braxton possessed unique insight.
The two met in California nearly 40 years ago, and Angelou served as a kind of spiritual adviser and mentor to the younger woman.
In 1989, Angelou, who held a lifetime endowed chair as Z. Smith Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest, offered a glowing endorsement of Braxton's book Black Women Writing Autobiography, calling it “scrupulously researched ... creative in finding resources and courageous in analyzing and interpreting her finds ... the work of a diligent mind.”
“The book sings,” wrote Angelou.
Braxton has authored or edited several works on Angelou’s writings. Her work on the USPS project began last October and ended on Dec. 18. For some time Braxton was not able to speak about the collaboration, because the plans for the stamp had not been released to the public.
Siegel sent his research on Angelou to Braxton for review. She submitted revisions, and the two swapped versions until both were satisfied with the final product. The image of Angelou that appears on the stamp, an oil-on-canvas painting that is part of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s collection in Washington, D.C., was created by artist Ross Rossin, a friend of Ambassador Andrew Young. It was Young who introduced Rossin and Angelou in 2013.
In a published statement Rossin said, “She was a voice that inspired millions – not just as an individual, but as a legendary poet and a civil rights icon who transcended generations.
“I was compelled by the challenge to portray her forgiving smile and her aura of unconditional love.”
The artist said that upon seeing the finished product, Angelou told him: “This is exactly how I see myself and exactly how I wish to be remembered.”
Braxton said she is more than pleased with the end result.
“Now, every time we use one of these stamps to mail a letter, we too contribute to honoring Angelou’s memory,” she said.