In the age of Instagram, emojis, and rapid-fire texting, a postage stamp can still be the most powerful way to send a message. The United States Postal Service recently issued four stamps that will help us think deeply about race in America and messages that stick in the minds of anyone who’s ever made assumptions about a black kid wearing a hood.
The holiday season is upon us at a time when our nation’s racial discourse is heightened. Images depicting people of color are more vital than ever.
More than fifty years ago, a landmark children’s book was published. It was the first of its kind, the only mainstream book that featured an African American child as the main character. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats instantly resonated with readers. Its main character, a black boy named Peter, spends his day crunching through the snowy streets of his urban neighborhood. He is quiet, contemplative, inquisitive, cute. His brown cheeks and nose peek out from the rim of his red hood. Peter’s race is never mentioned in the story, or in any of the advertising or flap copy that tells readers what the book is about.
The Snowy Day has become a classic, enjoyed by generations of readers. It was published in 1962. In 1963 it won the Caldecott Medal, the highest honor an illustrated children’s book can receive. Keats’s book garnered the gold citation in the same year Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his landmark “I Have a Dream” speech. Just weeks later, four little girls were killed in a racially motivated terrorist bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. In the middle of that unthinkable crime, Peter’s irresistible joy twinkled like a bright promise. And while a children’s book can never erase the heartbreak of a tragedy, reading a book with a child can help bring solace to the ugly vagaries of a scary world. That was as true in 1963 as it is today.
The Snowy Day postage stamps feature Peter making a snow angel, putting footprints in the crunchy stuff under his feet, whizzing down a snow-hill, and patting the snowball he’s about to tuck in his pocket.
Designed by art director Antonio Alcala, the words “Forever” and “USA” appear at the bottom of each stamp. These are important affirmations. They speak to the hope that the icy ball of intolerance that has brought a deluge of hatred to America can be melted, and that an overriding acceptance of all people will endure in a nation torn apart over issues of race and representation.
Keats himself was the target of discrimination. Born Jacob Ezra Katz, he was the son of Polish Jews who fled anti-Semitism at the start of the twentieth century in search of a better life in America. His parents, Benjamin and Gussie, were immigrants, no different from so many refugees who come to America today searching for opportunity. In school, young Ezra won prizes for his paintings. Years later, when he returned home after serving in World War II, he couldn’t find employment. Katz was repeatedly met with signs that said “No Jews Need Apply.” That’s when he changed his name to Ezra Jack Keats. As he became a prolific illustrator of children’s books, he realized that none of the main characters were children of color. Keats made a vow to change the all-white world of content for kids.
We can all cheer Keats’s foresight and ingenuity. I, for one, am the grateful middle-ager who grew up on The Snowy Day, a saving grace that pushed past the hard edges of a world that didn’t always accept the color of my skin.
The Snowy Day postage stamps present an opportunity to help heal implicit bias. The irony surrounding their iconic images is indisputable. The stamp’s illustrations were created by a Jewish immigrant who grew up in poverty and whose family suffered oppression in their homeland. Also, the stamps depict what has been perceived by some as threatening — an African American kid in a hoodie. Peter’s tender head is covered in the same ways that Trayvon Martin covered his head, and in a similar fashion to that of so many kids who, books in-hand, stride across the quads of America’s leading colleges and universities on a cold day. These boys are the thought-leaders of tomorrow, yet today they’re considered by some people to be trouble.
A postage stamp is a mere thumbprint in size, yet its imagery can speak volumes. If postage stamps were presented as a kind of Rorschach to assess one’s perceptions, how would Keats’s Peter fare? It all comes down to the viewer. Is that Peter, or Trayvon, or any number of black kids going out to play, themselves angels in the snow, setting down footprints into their futures?
My hope is that the stamps bearing Peter’s image will usher forth positive perceptions, and will make even the most device-driven people glance up from their phones and newsfeeds to enjoy the beauty of a child’s adventure.
A black kid in a hoodie now stands proudly at the upper right corner of millions of envelopes. A brown-skinned boy brings comfort and joy during the holiday season. A child of color helps you and me pay our bills. He’ll bring smiles to people whose mailboxes will be filled with glad tidings. No one will see this kid as a menace, or as a scary societal hazard who portends danger.
Let us not forget, too, that Peter was first introduced on the pages of a children’s book, one of the single most important tools for instilling values in the minds and hearts of children. Peter is the reason that, when invited to create a children’s book biography about Ezra Jack Keats, I chose to tell Keats’s life-story through the lens of a “collage verse” that puts Peter first by paying homage to a “brown-sugar boy in a blanket of white.”
I often wonder who the presidential candidates will be during the election that happens fifty years from now. These future incumbents are currently spending their days in classrooms, choosing books from their school and local libraries. What stories are they reading, and what will they remember about them when they grow up? When the presidential debate facilitators of the future begin the discussions by asking, “Name your favorite children’s book?” which titles will the candidates reel off? Their answers will most likely be those books that had the greatest impact on them, titles whose images are still ingrained in their memory. The very lives of these children depend on the stories they read and the pictures associated with them.
We warn kids to not judge books by their covers. Keats understood this. It’s why he intentionally put Peter in the spotlight, and why Peter’s universality has transcended racial boundaries. At the same time, Peter —and the postage stamps bearing his image —present a powerful reason why books with diverse characters and settings will help young readers and adults stop judging people by their covers, whether that covering is a hoodie or a hijab.
In referring to his reasons for giving Peter such prominence, Ezra Jack Keats said, “He should have been there all along.” Now, with the issuance of The Snowy Day postage stamps, Peter, and the positive future he represents, will be here – Forever.