The U.S. Postal Service honors the values and beliefs around African-American heritage with a new stamp commemorating Kwanzaa, which at 54 years, is a relatively new holiday, but one borne from old, deep roots honoring ancestral beliefs in family and community.
The Postal Service dedicated the Kwanzaa stamp October 13 with a virtual ceremony featuring Linda Hazel Humes, adjunct assistant professor of Africana Studies at John Jay College and founder of Yaffa Cultural Arts; master drummer Sanga of the Valley; and Dane Coleman, Postal Service vice president of regional processing operations, Eastern Area.
The ceremony can be seen via the Postal Service’s Facebook page (below).
The stamp’s official first day postmark is from Nashville, Tennessee, which would have hosted a ceremony if it had not been for the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This new Kwanzaa stamp captures the essence of the African-American cultural celebration. The stamp depicts the profile of a reflective woman with a kinara, or candleholder, with seven lit candles in front of her,” said USPS Regional Processing Operations Eastern Vice President Dane Coleman, the dedicating official. “The stamp, which was hand-sketched and digitally colored, evokes a sense of inner peace with its cool tones and vibrant design elements to give a festive feel to the celebration of Kwanzaa.”
Art director Antonio Alcalá designed the stamp using original artwork from Andrea Pippins. This is Pippins’ first stamp.
Kwanzaa was created in 1966, drawing on a variety of African traditions, deriving its name from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” meaning “first fruits.” Kwanzaa is a festive time for rejoicing in the prospect of health, prosperity and good luck in the coming year. It is also a time for contemplation and recollection of past hardships, faced by individuals and communities, and the ways history can inform and impact future happiness.
“It is customary when a great event happens – when the village comes together that they start with the sounds of the drums,” Humes said in the dedication video to introduce Sanga of the Valley, who offered a joyous Kwanzaa drum call ending with the drummer “calling on the spirit of the ancestors, it’s Kwanzaa time … it’s ancestors’ time.”
Humes reviewed the seven principals of Kwanzaa, which are unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba) and faith (imani). Each day of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of these seven principles, collectively known as the Nguzo Saba.
“These are principals you should use 365 days a year,” Humes urged. “It is a cultural holiday, not a religious holiday, so many people from various religions and ethnicities embrace Kwanzaa because the principals of Kwanzaa are universal and the values of Kwanzaa are family, love, community.”
The principals are symbolically depicted by seven candles, which are depicted on the stamp.
Pippins shared her excitement about the stamp on social media. “I am so excited to share that I have a USPS stamp coming out this year for Kwanzaa. This was a dream project!” Pippins said on Twitter. “A big dream became reality!!” she reiterated on Instagram. “Creating art for a United States (postage) stamp was a career bucket list wish for me, two years ago it happened — and here we are.”
Pippins, who holds a master of fine arts degree, is an illustrator and author who has a passion for creating images that reflect what she wants to see in art, media, and design, says her website. Her work has been featured in Essence Magazine, The New York Times, and O: The Oprah Magazine. She has worked with brands such as Bloomberg, Broadly, ESPN, The High Line, Lenny Letter, Lincoln Center, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Pippins is the author of: I Love My Hair, a coloring book featuring her illustrations celebrating various hairstyles and texture; and Becoming Me, an interactive journal for young women to color, doodle, and brainstorm their way to a creative life. She also illustrated others’ works, such as Young Gifted and Black and Step Into Your Power.
This is the 13th Kwanzaa stamp and the seventh unique design. The first Kwanzaa stamp was issued in 1997 as a 32¢ stamp.
Maulana Karenga, longtime chair of the department of Africana studies at California State University at Long Beach and the creator of Kwanzaa in 1966, said the release of the first Kwanzaa stamp in 1997 was the result of “a beautiful act of cultural self-determination.”
“People from around the country wrote in to the stamp development department and requested the stamp,” said Karenga, according to the Oct. 21, 1997 Los Angeles Times. “The release of the stamp and the national and communal activities around it are a deserved recognition of the importance of Kwanzaa to African people throughout the world African community.”
Los Angeles artist Synthia St. James created the artwork for the inaugural Kwanzaa stamp as well as the 2016 Kwanzaa stamp.
The design was used three more times (1999, 2001, 2002) for subsequent denominations. A new design appeared on a 37¢ stamp in 2004 and was repeated in 2007, 2008 and 2009 for greater denominations. The Kwanzaa stamp of 2009 was the last denominated in cents (44) before the era of forever stamps, which were issued with unique designs in 2013, 2016 and 2018.
Q and A with Antonio Alcalá, art director and designer
When did you start working on this stamp?
How did you find the artist?
I’m always looking for new artists. While I was looking, her name came up in conversations with other friends/art directors.
Can you tell us anything about the creative process between designer and artist at different stages?
Working with a new artist is always an exciting but anxious experience. Andrea was delightful and so enthusiastic about the process. After a long conversation about the project and guidelines, she sent me a lot of B&W sketches as different options she could pursue. If I recall correctly, most of the first sketches were of objects. It wasn’t until the second round that people were introduced and that made a big difference. We soon zeroed in on the woman and the kinara, and then spend many rounds refining that into the final design. We looked at different color pallets, different hair styles, different lettering, etc. until we arrived at the final stamp design. It was an easy and fun collaboration.
This is original artwork. Can you share anything about the artist’s process? Were there drawings and studies? Is this a hands-on media or strictly done on computer?
I’m pretty sure this whole process evolved in the digital sphere, although it certainly involved drawings and studies. Only they are done on the computer or iPad now.
Do you know if the single portrait image and the kinara were the artist’s direction from the start or did she try some other images?
The image evolved through back-and-forth discussions. She sketched many other alternative directions.
Can you share anything about the colors of the stamp? Were they this tone from the start or did they change during the creative process?
Many different color palettes were explored. We agreed on the final direction after about three months, and then made little tweaks before it went into production.
This column was originally published in part in the December 2020 issue of The American Philatelist.