USPS dedicates ‘beautiful and powerful’ Toni Morrison stamp at Princeton
Critically acclaimed and bestselling author Toni Morrison is a Nobel laureate and a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, among her many stellar achievements. And now the late Princeton professor, who died in 2019 at the age of 88, has been honored with a U.S. Postal Service Forever stamp.
Family, friends, fans and stamp collectors gathered at Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall on March 7 to pay tribute to Morrison and to celebrate the first day of issue for the Toni Morrison Commemorative Forever stamp.
The stamp dedication ceremony — available for viewing in its entirety on YouTube — included numerous remembrances of Morrison’s life and legacy, including a video message from Oprah Winfrey and a letter from former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, Class of 1985, that was presented to Morrison’s family.
“We’re honored to join Toni Morrison’s family and everyone gathered here in celebrating one of the world’s greatest storytellers,” the Obamas wrote in their letter, which was read by Ruha Benjamin, professor of African American studies. “Toni told fundamental truths about our country and the human condition. But she didn’t just reflect what was true. She helped generations of Black Americans reimagine what was possible. That’s why we return to her stories again and again, finding new meaning each time.”
In her video tribute, Winfrey recounted some favorite Toni Morrison stories and lauded Morrison’s impact on readers. Winfrey featured four of Morrison’s books in her Oprah’s Book Club — more than any other author — and also helped bring “Beloved” to the screen in 1998. “Toni Morrison’s books are in so many of our homes and abide in our hearts because she served as a catalyst for generations of readers over the years to understand the power of reading and words,” Winfrey said. Watch her video message on YouTube.
“It is a privilege to be able to host this event here at Princeton, because Toni Morrison has mattered tremendously to our campus and to our community,” said University President Christopher L. Eisgruber in his opening remarks. “Throughout her life, she was a transformative presence who inspired those around her, and Princeton continues to reflect the remarkable effects of her legacy.”
Morrison joined the Princeton faculty in 1989 as the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities at Princeton and was a member of the University’s creative writing program until she transferred to emeritus status in 2006. In 1994, she founded the Princeton Atelier, a program that brings renowned artists and performers from a wide range of disciplines to campus to collaborate with Princeton students and scholars. In 2017, Princeton dedicated a prominent campus building to Morrison in recognition of her many contributions to this University and to humanity.
The stamp issuance coincides with the landmark “Toni Morrison: Sites of Memory” exhibition at the Princeton University Library (through June 4) and a season of affiliated scholarly and artistic events across campus. The exhibition, curated by Autumn Womack, assistant professor of English and African American studies, explores Morrison’s creative process by using about 100 original archival items from the library’s extensive Toni Morrison Papers — most of them never before exhibited.
Morrison’s impact on Princeton and humanity is manifold, Eisgruber said.
“As a teacher, she helped her students develop their narrative voices and hone the craft of writing,” Eisgruber said. “As a colleague, she was generous with her time and her wisdom. She was an outstanding scholar who recognized the value of interdisciplinary collaborations and artistic work to the academic enterprise. She was a mentor for generations of students, including our Dean of the Faculty Gene Jarrett, and she was a role model who inspired artists of color to pursue their creative aspirations. And, of course, she was a writer of rare genius, brilliant originality and genuinely historic importance.”
‘Extraordinary and enduring contributions’
Morrison was chosen as a subject for a Forever stamp as someone who has “made extraordinary and enduring contributions to American society,” according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Service.
USPS receives approximately 30,000 suggestions annually for stamp ideas and chooses about 25 to 30 of those. The Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee then reviews the suggestions and makes recommendations to the postmaster general. The committee, appointed by the postmaster general, consists of individuals with strong backgrounds in history, science, technology, art, education, sports and other subjects of public interest.
Art director Ethel Kessler designed the Morrison stamp with a photograph taken in 1997 by Deborah Feingold.
Kessler said given Morrison’s stature as a dynamic figure in literature, it was important to her that the stamp be powerful. She and image researchers combed countless photos of Morrison from throughout her life, examining everything from background color to facial expression to how each image depicted different moments in Morrison’s career.
Feingold, who spoke at the ceremony, recalled the day she took the photo at Morrison’s home. It was her first time meeting the author and her first photo shoot for the cover of TIME.
“I photographed her in different outfits, while posing against different backgrounds,” Feingold said. “For even the most seasoned subjects, this process can be exhausting. But Toni remained focused and present, her expression for every frame was one of kindness. I have never taken that photoshoot for granted. And standing in front of you today, I humbly admit that this is beyond an honor.”
“This stamp will be powerful and iconic,” Kessler said.
A befitting tribute
Princeton was chosen as the site of the first-day ceremony since Morrison’s time as a professor at the University represented the height of her career.
The program opened with a recording of Toni Morrison’s sonorous voice reading from her novel “Jazz,” while her image and covers of her books were displayed on a screen above the stage.
Princeton Army ROTC presented the colors and members of the Old NasSoul a cappella group performed the national anthem. The vocalists later returned to the stage to sing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
The stamp was officially unveiled by Pritha Mehra, chief information officer and executive vice president of the Postal Service. As a curtain was dropped from an oversized reproduction of the stamp on stage and also revealed on the projection screen above, Mehra exclaimed, “Wow, she really holds the room? Doesn’t she?”
“We think you’ll agree, like the woman herself, that the Toni Morrison stamp is both beautiful and powerful,” Mehra said.
Mehra was joined in the unveiling by other program participants, including Eisgruber; Feingold; Benjamin; Dean of the Faculty Gene Jarrett, Class of 1997, who was a student of Morrison’s; and Carla Hayden, the 14th Librarian of Congress and chief executive of the Library of Congress.
Jarrett lauded Morrison as “one of the most accomplished and distinguished faculty members ever to grace the campuses of higher education — from Howard University to Princeton University.”
“While Toni Morrison’s image on the stamp welcomes us as consumers, the legacy of her intellect, of her artistry, welcomes us as thinkers,” said Jarrett, whose full remarks are online. “We must ensure that the story of democracy and national citizenship, told across generations by the U.S. stamp, culminates with a resolutely inclusive idea of what it means to be an American. This nation demonstrates its greatest cultural potential, in other words, when all its diverse array of talent is included — that is, embraced and enhanced — for the greater good.”
Hayden, who recalled readers lining up to check out Morrison’s latest in Baltimore and Chicago where she worked as a librarian, said Morrison’s work is an important part of libraries' literary collections. “Through her novels, children's books and essays, she communicated the Black experience on a canvas writ large for audiences who knew it firsthand, as well as for those who learned — perhaps for the first time — about the stinging and terrific aftermath of treating fellow human beings as less than equal,” Hayden said.
Winfrey said Morrison was able to reach people from all over world — especially women — and gather them together in an entirely new experience.
“I will be forever grateful for her work and know that we will always have Toni Morrison in our lives, because we will always have her words, and now we have this commemorative stamp,” Winfrey said.
After the ceremony, members of Morrison’s family gathered on the stage for photos with the oversized reproduction of the new stamp. Participants in the program signed autographs on the stage for those in attendance, who also were able to purchase stamps on site and receive decorative first-day postmarks.
Morrison's son, Ford Morrison, a project manager for Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, who attended the dedication with his daughter Safa, 19, said his mother always thought a U.S. stamp commemorating her work "would be a good idea."
"It's a great honor, and it's been overdue," he said.
Morrison was previously recognized with a stamp by Sweden in 1993, the year she became the first African American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Palau also issued a stamp featuring Morrison in 2000 as part of its Visionaries of the 20th Century series.
Her many novels, which have been translated into at least 20 languages, include “The Bluest Eye” (1970), “Sula” (1973), “Song of Solomon (1977) “Tar Baby” (1981), “Beloved” (1987), “Jazz” (1992), “Paradise” (1997), “Love” (2003), “A Mercy” (2008), “Home” (2012), and “God Help the Child” (2015). Her last book, “The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations,” was published in early 2019.
In addition to the Nobel Prize, Morrison won a Pulitzer Prize for “Beloved” and a National Book Critics Circle Award for “Song of Solomon.” Her numerous accolades also include the gold medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Emerson-Thoreau Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Humanities Medal.
Morrison was an acclaimed essayist and librettist, and she wrote children’s books with her younger son Slade Morrison, who died in 2010.
Other women writers of color who have been featured on stamps include Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Anne Spencer and Gwendolyn Brooks. Notable Black women who have received stamps include Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks and Dorothy Height, along with a number of other activists, educators, civil servants, musicians, artists and cultural trailblazers.
The Toni Morrison stamp is being issued as a Forever stamp. It will always be equal in value to a current First-Class Mail 1-ounce price.