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How Postage Stamps Became Hip.

Azeezaly Jaffer is Executive Director of Stamp Services for the U.S. Postal Service. This branch has introduced the popular stamp collecting program which features pop-culture icons on the stamps. Some of the Post Office’s most popular stamps include: Elvis Presely, Marilyn Monroe, and Bugs Bunny.


Other segments from the episode on December 18, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 18, 1997: Interview with Azeezaly Jaffer; Interview with Iyunolu Osagie; Interview with Charlie Haffner.


Date: DECEMBER 18, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 121801np.217
Head: Eh, That's 32 Cents, Doc
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

You've probably been buying lots of stamps lately for holiday cards. Now, you can get stamps you don't even have to lick. And of course, for the last few years, instead of just the busts of former presidents, our stamps have had the images of pop icons like Elvis Presley, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Jelly Roll Morton, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Bugs Bunny. A recent release of stamps featured classic movie monsters, including Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, and The Wolfman.

We wanted to find out how the post office got so hip, so we invited the executive director of stamp services, Azeeze Jaffer, who has overseen the design, marketing, and distribution of stamps since 1993. He formerly headed product publicity and public communications at the postal service. He grew up in Kenya, where the stamps reflected the richness of the country and he says he wanted American stamps to reflect this country's rich cultural life.

I asked him why stamps have become so pop.

AZEEZE JAFFER, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF STAMP SERVICES, U.S. POSTAL SERVICE: Well, I think the program has evolved over the last four or five years, and we've moved away -- although we continue to do American flags and presidents and, you know, cultural themes, significant events. What is beginning to appear on postage stamps are really subjects and themes and people that America really relate to.

GROSS: Does anybody ever say to you: "isn't the Frankenstein monster not dignified enough to rate his own stamp?"

JAFFER: No, it's interesting. I think that you, you know, the intent of the program is to try and meet the needs and wishes of as many people as we possibly can. The program belongs to the American people.

And when you look at themes like Bugs Bunny or like other monsters like Frankenstein or The Mummy, we're appealing to different segments of the population. Kids, as an example, are very, very excited about subject matter like that. They really are.

GROSS: I -- you know, one of the series recently is pears and peaches. I'm thinking, like: who's going to choose pears and peaches when they could have, you know, Elvis or Hoagy Carmichael? Our producer's raising her hand. She likes the pears and peaches.


JAFFER: But you know -- you know what's really interesting is, I mean, stamps are really in two categories.

GROSS: Yeah.

JAFFER: I mean, all stamps are produced obviously for mail use. And our intent here is, with the commemorative stamps, if you will, and I'll come right back to pears and peaches, the commemorative stamps we're hoping that people are going to buy and save and collect for generations to come. It's really interesting, when we look at what stamps sell -- fruits, flowers, space, birds, sports are very, very, very popular stamps that the American people like to see over and over and over again for their mail use needs.

And so the pears and peaches, as an example, has been an extremely popular stamp with the American consumer, and I think became even more -- even more popular because we have made some major breakthroughs with our self-adhesive capabilities, the self-stick stamps. And so, pears and peaches were just an absolute smash with the American people; they really were.

GROSS: Who decides who gets to be on a stamp? Or, what picture gets to be on a stamp?

JAFFER: Well, it's -- it's a complicated process and I guess maybe I can try and simplify it in a minute or less. We receive some 50,000 to 60,000 letters a year from the American people, and they tell us about ideas that they've got. They tell us what they want to see on stamps.

And there's a group of hardworking folks called the Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee that volunteer their time and meet on a quarterly basis and review all of the subjects that are coming in from the American people. And as a general rule, they'll work about two to two and a half or three years ahead of any given year, in terms of the commemorative program.

And the committee reviews the subject matter and looks at the anniversary dates and the significance of events. And then, they recommend the subject matter and designs to the postmaster general, who has the ultimate authority to approve the issuance of a postage stamp.

GROSS: So if I'm not mistaken, as part of like the singer series, Mildred Bailey (ph) had her own stamp, right?

JAFFER: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Now, I thought that was a very hip choice. I'd be really surprised if gazillions of Americans were voting for Mildred Bailey. How did she get to be on there?

JAFFER: I think...

GROSS: I love Mildred Bailey's singing.

JAFFER: Yeah, and, and...

GROSS: Yeah.

JAFFER: ... you know, it's just -- it's just -- it's part of the musical series and we've paid tribute to many genres of American music and, you know, we started it obviously with the Elvis Presley, which everyone remembers. I think that was a...

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

JAFFER: ... turning point for everyone with the stamp program.

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

JAFFER: And you know, we've paid -- we've paid tribute to blues singers. We've paid tribute to rock and roll and rhythm and blues. This year, in fact, for 1998, we have the folks -- the folk musicians that are going to be appearing on stamps, as well as gospel singers. And you know, it's a matter of the committee sitting down and looking at who had dramatic influence, if you will, on the shaping of this nation.

And it doesn't have to be just, you know, presidents. It can be cultural events. It can be -- in this case, you know, who are the leaders, if you will, that contributed to the shaping -- the form of American music as you and I know it today?

GROSS: I'll tell you it gives me great pleasure to send a letter with a picture of Hoagy Carmichael on the stamp.

JAFFER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What's in it for the post office, to have cool stamps?

JAFFER: Well, it's really three-fold. One, you know, the postal service after reorganization in 1972, which was by Congress -- we don't receive any tax subsidies anymore. We are chartered by law to break even, and what that means is that we have to -- we derive our revenues from the sales of our products and services.

And so, when we looked at the stamp program and we looked at other marketing initiatives, if you will, within the postal service, and revenue initiatives, the stamp program is a program that generates some $200 million in revenue for the postal service. And what I mean by that is that's, you know, $200 million worth of stamps that people buy and don't use. And that's what we call stamp retention.

Well, why is that important? Because if you take that -- if you take $200 million from stamps and you take another $100 million from somewhere else, and you find another initiative to generate another $200 million, they add up very quickly. And in our world, what we're -- our ultimate goal is to hold rates stable for the American consumer.

We're into a -- you know, into a fourth year of a stable rate cycle, and every penny that we generate -- every penny that we generate translates into a savings to the American consumer because one penny in a rate increase translates to us $1 billion in revenue.

GROSS: There's a question I've really wanted to ask you for a long time.

JAFFER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: One of the really cool stamps that the post office put out was a stamp of the great blues singer and guitarist Robert Johnson (ph).

JAFFER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Robert Johnson is sort of like one of those blues singers who is reputed to have met the devil at the crossroads and...


GROSS: ... there's only like two known photographs of him, and one of them is a real -- you know, dark looking photo where he has a cigarette sticking out of his mouth...

JAFFER: Right.

GROSS: ... and in the stamp version of this photo, the cigarette was airbrushed out of his mouth.


GROSS: And I'm thinking, like: what's the point of taking the cigarette out of his mouth and trying to make Robert Johnson into a healthy role model, when he didn't live a good role model kind of life. And every blues fan knows that. So tell us the story, why you had to airbrush out the cigarette.

JAFFER: I think -- I think it's -- it's interesting because the first time that that happened was with Robert Johnson, and then subsequently with James Dean. Ultimately, when you think about stamps, you know, it was a very tough decision. When you think about stamps, stamps are going to be -- have been and will continue to be a reflection of this nation, not only here, but -- you know, but abroad.

They are chronicling history in one form or another. In light of the, I think the social and the political changes that this nation and the country has gone through, you know, we had to make a very conscious decision at that point in time as to what kind of a message we would be conveying by putting a stamp out that would have an individual, you know, still with a cigarette in hand or cigarette in mouth.

And you know, we struggled with that at great length -- I have to tell you that. We struggled with that for a long time. And then ultimately the consensus was that it was, you know, it was -- we are a government agency, although we're not, you know, tax supported or Congress supported, we are a government agency, and I think that as a government agency and as the official chronicler of the events that have shaped this nation and the people that have helped make this nation great, it was incumbent upon us to, you know, portray, if you will, Robert Johnson in the way that I think he would want to be remembered or in the way that when someone looks back 100 years from now.

So it was a tough decision. It wasn't one that we just arbitrarily said "let's airbrush the cigarette out."

GROSS: Isn't there at least a little part of you that wanted that cigarette in and wanted to be accurate to -- to the man and to history?

JAFFER: No -- and I'll tell you, you know, yeah -- it -- to be honest, absolutely, absolutely. I think that there is. But I think that ultimately we had to do the right thing. And we've come across instances like that in the past, and we've just -- we have to be -- we have to be very, very careful...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

JAFFER: ... especially when we're dealing with, you know, original artwork. Clearly, we're not going to -- and I use that as an example, because we recently had a situation, I believe a year or two years ago, where we were using a masterpiece of art that hangs in the National Gallery, that was in image of a madonna and child for a Christmas stamp.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

JAFFER: And it was, you know, it was an image that was in the all and all, and there was a great discussion about that, as to whether or not there needs to be some airbrush applied to a masterpiece of art in terms of making it, if you will, politically correct.

And the decision was made "no," and I remember being a part of those discussions, and you know, being very sensitive to the fact that here you had a piece of original art that was hanging in one of the Smithsonian galleries -- the National Gallery -- and you know, it's not -- it's not our place to, if you will, go in and airbrush or fix something that is an original piece of art.

We did get a lot of letters. We did get a lot of letters from people that said that we were beginning to err on the side of putting pornography on stamps, and you know, that's not the case at all. That's not the case at all.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

JAFFER: I mean, this is a masterpiece of art.

GROSS: My guest is Azeeze Jaffer. He directs the design, marketing, and distribution of postage stamps. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

We're talking about how postage stamps became so pop. My guest is Azeeze Jaffer, executive director of stamp services at the U.S. Postal Service.

You know, I tell you, I've been liking those non-lick stamps -- the stamps that you don't have to lick -- they just kind of stick on.

JAFFER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What was the thinking behind that?

JAFFER: It's a funny story. We -- self-adhesive stamps have been around for I guess about 25 years. And first, it was a lot more to produce self-adhesive stamps than regular gum stamps. Then we were in a situation where when we introduced them, because of the cost, there was a surcharge to 'em.

And while all that was happening, this is -- I'm dating back now about maybe 10 years or so -- while all that was happening, our serious collecting community was not pleased with the self-adhesive stamps because they were very hard to store, mount, collect et cetera.

So we embarked on a aggressive program of research and technology on how to make them one, user friendly; two, to reduce, if you will, our production costs. And it was about the time -- and I remember, this is really an interesting story. It was about the time that Desert Shield was occurring, if you remember that.

We found ourselves in a situation where when our men and women were deployed overseas in the Middle East, we got phone calls from the military postal service saying: "folks, you gotta help us out." And we said: "why?"

And they said, well, you know, Desert Shield was technically not yet Desert Storm, and so our men and women were sending letters and cards back to the United States, except it was so hot in the Middle East that stamps were sticking to each other in their wallets or in their, you know, pouches.

And so the military postal service said to us: "you gotta send us these self-adhesive stamps." And so, we took everything that we had in inventory and sent them over to the Middle East. And when all those people came back home, they started going to their local post offices and saying: "we want self-adhesive stamps."

And I think what happened was with all those men and women coming back and the demand just all of a sudden peaked. And between 1995 and 1996, our production in self-adhesive stamps went from some 25 percent of the total volume of 38 billion stamps that we produce a year, to about 60 percent.

We're producing now about 80 to 85 percent of all the stamps that we produce are in self-adhesive format. The American people have fallen in love with them. They're -- I think they're probably the next best invention to sliced bread.

GROSS: Now, I've gotta ask how you, an executive in our post office...

JAFFER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ... executive director of stamp services -- how you feel about e-mail, which makes it possible for us to send written messages to each other without stamps.

JAFFER: I think the -- if I can borrow a line that I read and heard many years ago. You know, someone asked me that question about faxes first, if you remember when...

GROSS: Yeah.

JAFFER: ... faxes were out.

GROSS: Oh, I do.

JAFFER: And the -- my favorite three lines on a fax were "hard copy to follow."


Because that -- that's mail. That was my favorite three lines. And I think that there's no question -- there's no question that e-mail, and its -- and its advent and the amount of use of the e-mail is going to indeed impact, if you will, the hard copy business.

But what -- what people, I guess, have probably not realized is: when we look at our mail base, our mail base is comprised primarily of business mail; that is, a business to a consumer, and the consumer, if you will, responding to the business. The percentage of mail that is between consumer to consumer is a very small percent, and that is the area that we have to be very concerned about that we don't lose that -- you know, that we don't lose that whole part of the business to e-mail.

I think that in terms of business mail and standard mail, the stuff that you and I get at home -- catalogues et cetera -- I think we have to be mindful of what is happening with technology. I think we have to be mindful about what we, as the postal service, can do to be at the forefront of that technology and make sure that one we maintain market share; and two that if we are indeed going to be looking at a loss in market share, that we recognize why we're losing it and we don't -- we don't sort of wake up 10 years from now and say: "oh my God, we lost this business."

We should be, you know, we should be putting our strategies in place to see how we can maintain that market share. And one of those ways, which relates to me, is something that we're testing called electronic postmarking. You know, very simply, I mean, right now, if you wanted to send a message to me and you didn't know my e-mail address, you wouldn't be able to send it to me. But the post office as an organization knows where everybody lives. We deliver 125 million -- to 125 million addresses six days a week.

And so one of the things that we're looking at is, you know, like with fax as fax evolved, fax became, if you will, an official document and people would recognize it as an official document. I don't know that electronic mail is recognized as an official document right now.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

JAFFER: And so one of the things that we're going is -- we're not -- we're not in the electronic mail business, but one of the things that we are doing is: how do we validate electronic mail? Is there a role for the postal service to create an electronic postmark system that would validate electronic mail?

So, there's a lot of initiatives that we're -- that we're looking at. Some of them -- some of them will work; some of them -- you know, some of them will not work. But the challenge that we face is that we have to be doing things differently because the market is changing around us.

GROSS: What are some of the stamps we can look forward to in the near future?

JAFFER: In 1998, I think the program -- I think the ballet stamp that will be issued in 1998 is a breathtaking design -- absolutely a breathtaking design. And we are embarking on a program to chronicle this past century. There's a program that we announced a month or so ago called "Celebrate the Century." And what it is is a issuance of stamps for each decade, starting with the 1900s.

But what's unique about this program and what's unique about it to the American people is for the first four decades up through the 1940s, the committee has recommended subject matter to the postmaster general, and it's going to recognize the most significant achievements of each of those decades.

But starting with the 1950s, Terry, what's going to happen is we're gonna put 30 subjects out there to the American people in a ballot form. And unlike Elvis, where they picked on a design, but the subject was already announced, the American people are going to tell us what helped -- what shaped their lives in each of those decades, starting with the 1950s in five broad categories: arts and entertainment, music, science, technology, and people.

GROSS: Well, you know, I bet that since you are an executive in the U.S. Postal System, you don't have to wait on long lines at the post office during the Christmas season.


I'll bet you get special privileges.

JAFFER: No, no, I don't. In fact, everyone laughs at me because at the end of every month, although I'm the executive director of the stamp program and oversee the whole function, they know when Azeeze is paying bills because I'm running around the office without any shoes on asking people: "whose got stamps that I can buy?"


And it's -- I run around the office, and I go "whose got stamps I can buy" and everyone looks at me, and they go what an oxymoron this is, you know? Here he is, the stamp manager and doesn't have any stamps to use. But no, in fact, no privileges at all.

You know, the holiday season is, as you well know, is a very, very busy time for us. But what we've done is we've also gone out and we've hired a lot more people. We've hired a lot of temporary people. We've added a lot of transportation. We've extended hours in our retail locations.

And I think that, you know, in Philadelphia if you've been to one of the retail stores recently, I think you see that we're trying to become very, very customer friendly. We're hoping that you don't have to wait in line. We're hoping that you can just walk into a post office, pick a product or a stamps or whatever you want up, and walk straight up to the counter and pay for it and then get out.

GROSS: Well, I wish you happy holidays. I want to thank you very much for talking with us about the stamps.

JAFFER: Thank you. Thank you. It was a pleasure.

GROSS: Azeeze Jaffer is the executive director of stamp services for the postal service.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Azeeze Jaffer
High: Azeeze Jaffer is Executive Director of Stamp Services for the U.S. Postal Service. This branch has introduced the popular stamp collecting program which features pop-culture icons on the stamps. Some of the Post Offices most popular stamps include: Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Bugs Bunny.
Spec: Government; Business; Postal Service; Media; Movie Industry; Music Industry; Elvis Stamp; Bugs Bunny; Marilyn Monroe
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Eh, That's 32 Cents, Doc
Date: DECEMBER 18, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 121802np.217
Head: Amistad's History
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The movie "Amistad" has just been nominated for four Golden Globe Awards. As a result of the movie, nearly everyone in America now knows something about the Amistad incident and its place in the movement to end slavery.

The slaves who revolted on the ship were Africans from Sierra Leone. The uprising was led by Joseph Cinque, known in his country as Sengbe Pieh. He's now a hero in Sierra Leone. His face is even on the largest denomination of the country's currency.

But it's only been since the 1980s that the Amistad story became well-known in Sierra Leone. My guest Iyunolu Osagie is a scholar from Sierra Leone who now teaches African and African-American Literature at Penn State University. She's writing a book about the Amistad and its impact on Sierra Leone.

Let's start with a clip from the film. In this scene, former President John Quincy Adams is meeting with Joseph Cinque. Adams is representing the Africans in the appeal to the Supreme Court where their victory is being appealed. In this scene, Cinque, who only speaks the language Mende (ph) is talking with Adams through an interpreter who has helped throughout the case.


ANTHONY HOPKINS, ACTOR, AS JOHN QUINCY ADAMS: Cinque, I'm being honest with you. Anything less would be disrespectful. I'm telling you -- I'm preparing you, I suppose. I'm explaining to you that the test ahead of us is an exceptionally difficult one.


ACTOR AS TRANSLATOR: We won't be going in there alone.

HOPKINS: Alone, indeed not. No, we have right at our side. We have righteousness at our side. We have Mr. Baldwin over there.


TRANSLATOR: I meant my ancestors. I will call into the past. Far back to the beginning of time, and beg them to come and help me at the judgment. I will reach back and draw them into me, and they must come. For at this moment, I am the whole reason they have existed at all.

GROSS: Iyunolu Osagie told me that she thought many important points were missing from the movie. I asked for an example.

Well, first of all, there were many important characters that were taken out that I thought should be there. But also the story itself just really took a different turn.

The reasons why, for instance, they decided to revolt against their captors, is so important to state that. They've decided to revolt against their captors because they thought they were going to be eaten by the whites. That was the reason why they revolted. And there wasn't even a hint of that intent or purpose -- the historical intent given in the movie.

GROSS: Why would they have thought that they were going to be eaten?

OSAGIE: Oh, it was obvious. They really were afraid of their captors. They thought -- they had no idea what these people meant to do with them. And the cook on the ship had actually informed them that they would be cooked and eaten, and actually pointed out to them that that's the only reason why they were being taken across the Atlantic Ocean.

And they believed him, since he was a cook. He was a half-caste. He was a mulatto. And because of that, they decided it was better to die fighting than to end up in somebody's pot. They literally believed that that was what white people were going to do to them.

And -- but there wasn't even a hint of that real initial reason why they wanted to -- why they decided to take that chance that particular night.

GROSS: Another example of something missing that you think really should have been in.

OSAGIE: Oh, yes. Sengbe Pieh, who is Joseph Cinque as Americans call him, was a very heroic character. He wasn't given the kind of -- he wasn't elevated in this movie.

If you really read the story of the Amistad -- read different people's accounts of it back in 1839 through '41 when they were in the United States, you will find out that he was indeed a man of great dignity; a man of great wisdom. I felt that Cinque in this movie was made to have so much rage that he wasn't graceful. He lacked the dignity of a real hero in that sense.

I mean, there was a lot of physical presence, but apart from presence, there was other than that most of his action and most of what he portrayed was anger. And to me, that was a real problem, because that is not the historical Cinque that we have.

GROSS: The movie Amistad ends as Cinque and the other surviving Africans who were brought here on the Amistad sailed back to Africa. And as the movie ends, a little printed update on what happened to the real characters...


GROSS: ... after this. And it says that Cinque returned to his village in Sierra Leone only to find it was destroyed by civil war and his family was gone and was presumed to be killed or sold into slavery. What was tearing apart his village in Sierra Leone?

OSAGIE: It was war. I would hardly call it civil war. That is a very beautiful political term, but basically it was war that was born out of slavery. The war was really forced on the people. Slavery had become more or less the medium of financial exchange.

You had to somehow be involved in this process. People were forced into it because people who did not want to be a part of the slavery industry, and this was an international industry, they really just were definitely wiped out. So people had to keep running or fighting to keep out of the war.

But everyone was sort of engulfed. It was really burning and raging when he got back to Sierra Leone.

GROSS: Now when you say that everybody was somehow or another forced to participate in the slave economy in Sierra Leone, do you mean that people were selling other people they knew into slavery? Or were forced to even, like, sell members of their own family into slavery?

OSAGIE: Well, unfortunately some of that happened; some of that happened. Not everyone was forced to sell their own family into slavery, but many times people were taken into slavery from their family through some kind of manipulative deal. For instance, if you owe me 10 pounds of tobacco and I don't pay you, then I have the right to come and take from you anything that I want.

And in most cases, that kind of a deal -- I mean, not being able to pay somebody back, really has -- should not have anything to do with taking their children; taking their -- then, taking those people into slavery. But it happened all the time. It was an excuse to be a part of the international economy that was running based on slavery.

GROSS: The Africans who came here on the Amistad didn't sail back to Africa alone. They were joined by five American missionaries, Christian missionaries. Who were those missionaries and what was their mission in going to Sierra Leone with the Africans?

OSAGIE: OK, yes, when the -- when the Amistad Africans were in the United States, they spent almost three years, because they came in 1839 and did not leave until 18 -- actually arrived in Sierra Leone in 1842. They left in 1841. Within those three years they did, in fact, manage to Christianize a good number of the Amistad Africans.

And the abolitionists, who were the people that helped the Africans to fight for their freedom, had other ideas in mind. It wasn't just so much so that the Africans would be free. You know, based on the triumph of that particular trial, the Amistad trial, they thought that this was, in fact, a way for them to promote light -- quote/unquote -- to the Africans by taking the gospel to Africa.

And I should point out at this point that one couple out of the five missionaries -- there were two couples there -- were actually African-American. So black abolitionists were very much involved in seeing the Africans get back safely to Sierra Leone. And that was one other thing -- they could have been captured again as they attempted to sail back to Africa, but going with the abolitionists was helpful.

GROSS: How soon after Cinque returned to Africa did he discover that his family was gone and his village was destroyed?

OSAGIE: I do not have the exact number of days, but I would say it would be within weeks -- within weeks that this was discovered.

GROSS: Did Cinque stay with the missionaries when he realized that he wouldn't be able to find his family?

OSAGIE: No, he was actually very restless. He did -- he was with them some of the time, and some of the time he was out of there. So he was so impacted by this experience, that he decided to -- sometimes he would come in and be a part of what was going on -- help them. But he was too restless to really stay.

GROSS: What did he do?

OSAGIE: He moved around some. It is said that he was a trader. He did different kinds of things. He did marry somebody else. How successful that marriage was, we do not know. It is said also by one of the missionaries that we can trust that he traveled to Jamaica. For how long he stayed in Jamaica, we do not know. But in fact, he went back to Sierra Leone. When he was old, in fact, he ended up back in the AMA mission house and it was there that he died. And he was buried on the grounds of the mission house.

GROSS: Do you know if he ever converted to Christianity?

OSAGIE: I would think he did. I would think he did because when he -- when it was time for him to die, that was the one thing he said. He came back to the mission house, to the pastor or pastors/missionaries that were running the place at this time; introduced himself and said: "I have come to die." And he expected the Christian rites to be performed over him.

GROSS: My guest is Iyunolu Osagie, a scholar from Sierra Leone. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guest Iyunolu Osagie is writing a book about the Amistad and its impact on Sierra Leone.

Is it fair to say that one of the after effects of the Amistad story was the coming of American Christian missionaries to Sierra Leone?

OSAGIE: Absolutely.

GROSS: And what impact did those missionaries have on the future of Sierra Leone?

OSAGIE: Oh, it was a lot. Their coming -- actually their coming to Sierra Leone changed a lot of things. They fought against the slave trade because this was happening right where -- the very place they had come to hoping that things were not the way they imagined -- the way it had been before. And things -- they were able to stop the war -- the war -- the civil war, if you can call it that.

And not only that, they gave education. They built schools, churches -- they really basically turned the people away from slavery. And they also wrote letters to the British government claiming that they should help in stopping this continued drive for slaves. And this was all happening about 30 years past the slave trade ban.

GROSS: When the Amistad Africans returned back to Africa, there was still a lot of people who were being sold into slavery in Sierra Leone. Did any of them get recaptured and brought back into slavery?

OSAGIE: Absolutely. The story is very interesting and there's so many twists and turns. A lot of the Africans got sold -- Amistad Africans got sold back into slavery, and many times the missionaries had to actually buy them back out of slavery to freedom.

Or at times, one of the things they would do is use the mission as the -- a form of protection, to say "I am from the mission." And that was a kind of protection for them -- a kind of security -- for them not to be stolen or sold.

But I do want to point out that James Colvey (ph) -- James Colvey was the interpreter. He got killed. He was captured during one of those...

GROSS: He went to Sierra Leone with the returning Africans.

OSAGIE: Yes, yes, yes. He decided to go to Sierra Leone with them and to be a part of the mission. And he was with them, but of course, many of the Amistad Africans went back to their families.

And, but at the same time, they stayed close enough to the mission and they were always going back and forth. James Colvey, the interpreter that, you know, is so well represented in Spielberg's movie, actually ends up being killed in one of these wars. He was captured and wasn't able to get -- secure his freedom in time. So -- and he wasn't the only one. There were several others. So, it was a precarious journey.

GROSS: Now, one of the reasons why you wrote your book...


GROSS: ... your still unpublished book, was that, you know, you feel having grown up in Sierra Leone that the Amistad story was never really told there until recently.


GROSS: Why do you think that until recently the Amistad story seemed to have so little resonance in Sierra Leone?

OSAGIE: Yes, I was surprised when I stumbled on the Amistad story in the United States, and I discovered the citizenship and I thought: "oh my goodness, I was born there. What happened?" Like so many other things, now that I look back -- so many incidents, so many things that are going on in Sierra Leone -- we have the evidence that slavery must have really impacted the people to the point of trauma; to the point of silencing the issue. Slavery is not talked much about until recently.

And this happened when Joseph Opala (ph), an anthropologist, was teaching at Feuerbay (ph) College, the University of Sierra Leone -- and he was teaching about Sierra Leonian heroes, and put Sengbe Pieh -- Joseph Cinque -- as one of the -- listed him as one of the heroes and taught him.

And it was interesting, because the Sierra Leonians that were in his class were surprised to know that there was any such person. And that was where the drama actually started. Because as he was teaching, one of the people in his class at that time was Charlie Haffner, who was a teacher -- a high school teacher who was taking some drama classes at the university -- a diploma course.

And he was so impressed by the story that he decided he was going to write a play on it. And he wrote the play and the play was performed around the country. And this really informed a lot of people who were not aware of the story that, in fact, this is part of your history.

GROSS: In a moment, we'll meet the playwright you were just talking about, Charlie Haffner, who wrote a play about the Amistad, and that play helped spread the story of the Amistad throughout Sierra Leone. We'll meet him in just a couple of minutes.

What do you think is the relevance of the Amistad story today in Sierra Leone?

OSAGIE: Before this time, just as Joseph Opala had pointed out, Sierra Leonians had never really shown any sense of patriotism before. I mean, if you know the story of Sierra Leone, people tend to even make fun of the heroes that they do know of, not to talk of the heroes they do not know of. But Sengbe Pieh was the one hero that they heard about that so impacted their lives that for the first time, they were able to identify with and see something promising in following the career, let's say, of Sengbe Pieh in doing what he did -- in taking their own life physically into their own hands, and saying: "we can stand up and fight for that which is right."

In fact, when I went to Sierra Leone, I was surprised to see the portrait of Sengbe Pieh all over in different neighborhoods on the walls. It's a household vocabulary, that the kids run around, you know, talking about Sengbe Pieh, and they see him as a symbol of power and empowerment, you know, self-empowerment.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

OSAGIE: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Iyunolu Osagie is writing a book about the Amistad and its impact on Sierra Leone. She's a professor of African and African-American Literature at Penn State University.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Iyunolu Osagie
High: Iyunolu Osagie is an assistant professor of English at Penn State University in Pennsylvania. She has researched and written the events of the Amistad slave rebellion and the trial that followed. She is a native of Sierra Leone where the Amistad story begins and ultimately ends.
Spec: Movie Industry; History; Slavery; Amistad; Courts; Trials; Africa; Sierra Leone
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Amistad's History
Date: DECEMBER 18, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 121803np.217
Head: Amistad Kata-Kata
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:45

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Charlie Haffner is an actor and playwright from Sierra Leone. Although Joseph Cinque, who led the revolt on the Amistad was from Sierra Leone, most people in that country didn't know the story until recently. The story became known, in part, because of a play written in 1987 by my guest Charlie Haffner.

Haffner first heard about the Amistad as an adult when he was taking a class from Joe Opala (ph), a white American anthropologist who taught for many years in Sierra Leone. I asked Haffner what impact the Amistad story had on him when he first heard it in class.

CHARLIE HAFFNER, PLAYWRIGHT, "AMISTAD KATA-KATA": I think in the very first place in that class it was shocking to me more than anything else. And I am not ashamed to say that I shed tears in the class. I wept. That was when Joe Opala himself came up to me and asked me: "who are you?" And I asked him again, "who are you? You are a white American. You come here to tell me my own history. You are going to be the first and the last." And we became great friends after.

So that was initial -- the initial impact for me was shock, disbelief.

GROSS: What shocked you about the story?

HAFFNER: The fact that that is a Sierra Leonian story. That is its true history, showing heroism; showing strength; showing courage of these Sierra Leonians who over the years colonial history has made us so cynical. So that was what shocked me that could it be true that a story about Sierra Leonians exists like this? So full of courage and honor? It was quite a disbelief.

GROSS: So, you were shocked that there was this incredible story that was unknown to you and others in Sierra Leone -- that's what you found shocking.

HAFFNER: Exactly.

GROSS: You ended up writing a play about the Amistad because you were so moved by the story. And you toured the play around Sierra Leone. What kind of reactions did you get when your play told the story in villages around the country?

HAFFNER: You see, the reaction I had initially was a reaction every Sierra Leonian had on hearing that story for the first time. I must say. That in the press was not too happy with my story. Many Sierra Leonian critics thought I was lying, and this (unintelligible) by the press and the media that Charlie Haffner has come up with a big lie.

GROSS: They thought you making up the story?

HAFFNER: They thought I was making up the story. How could there have been Sierra Leonian of that stature? How could there be such a history of our country and we never knew about that?

GROSS: But if this is really true, we would have known about it.

HAFFNER: We would have known about that, yes. It must be a big joke -- that Charlie Haffner.

GROSS: Well, when did the disbelief turn into belief?

HAFFNER: We did not stop. Joe Opala sets me into finding more and more about this story, and I too became very interested in this story, and I read a lots -- I did a lot of research on this story and I was convinced -- and I had all the documents with me.

So one thing we did was to use the folk media, which is theater. And my theater group specializes in the folk media, specializing in increasing awareness on issues pertaining to national consciousness, development, and so on.

So we pursued the story. We used our type of theater, that is -- it involves song and drama and dances, especially a capella which we specialize in. My group specializes in a capella and we composed a forced calypso of this story -- a whole calypso telling the whole story, which we first did and which we used to tour the whole country.

GROSS: Now, did you want to do it in song and in theater because the oral tradition is such a part of Sierra Leone culture as opposed to, you know, newspapers and books?

HAFFNER: That is what I mean, because I mean -- because our people are illiterates, they only way you could reach them was through the oral tradition, which involves song and dramas and so on.

I mean, of all the published works that existed in the libraries of the University of Sierra Leone and parts of the United States, it was not able to reach our people, because up to this point I speak, 85 percent of our people are illiterates, meaning they could not read the English language. They could not read the daily newspaper. They could not understand local news in English. And that is very, very pathetic.

So the only way to reach them -- not only for the Amistad, but for all other governmental issues I've being involved in, including UNICEF work, is to get them through theater and drama.

GROSS: Now, I realize that the calypso song that you wrote is in Mende (ph) and not in English.

HAFFNER: No, it's in English.

GROSS: Oh, it's in English.

HAFFNER: It's in English.

GROSS: Would you sing us just a little bit of it?

HAFFNER: Well, now we'll put it in English. It used to be in Crio (ph). Yeah, I could sing it for you in Crio (ph) rather than English because Crio (ph) happens to be the lingua franca of the Sierra Leone people. It is the language that came out of the abolition of slavery and the founding of Freetown as a home for free slaves.

So if I'm going to do it in America, it's going to be in English.

GROSS: Good.

HAFFNER: When I go back to Africa, it's both sided -- it is in Crio.

GROSS: Why don't you sing one verse in Crio and in English so we can hear it both ways.

HAFFNER: Yeah, OK. Let me give you the -- let me give you the first one in Crio. Yeah? (Unintelligible).


HAFFNER: That's in Crio. We have been trying to translation in English. It has not been easy translating, but it also goes like this:

HAFFNER SINGING: "Did you hear about slavery?
Did you hear about Sengbe Pieh?
Did you hear about Amistad?
Amistad Kata-Kata

Sengbe Pieh is Sierra Leonian
Born in Sierra Leone
His mother is Sierra Leonian
His father is Sierra Leonian
At the age of 26
They captured Sengbe Pieh
And sold him to slavery

GROSS: And when you start by saying "did you hear about," I guess you started it that way because at that point people hadn't heard about it, so it was a way for them to say: "no I hadn't, but what's the story."

HAFFNER: Yeah, it's part of the educational technique, you know...

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

HAFFNER: ... using education, you know, to -- for them to, you know, to bring them -- to prepare the way for them to listen to whatever you have to give them.

GROSS: Have you seen the movie Amistad?

HAFFNER: I have.

GROSS: What did you think of the movie?

HAFFNER: It is the kind of Hollywood movie. I think that in terms of making a movie, it was made. But in terms of the facts of the matter, I am not satisfied and I'm -- so too, I think that many Sierra Leonians are not satisfied about the way the story is treated.

I think that emphasis on the movie are put more on the Americanness of the story. And we think that the Sierra Leonian side of the story was ignored to a great extent. Mentioning Sierra Leone does not emphasize the place of Sierra Leone in the story and they're worried about that.

GROSS: I know that you don't like the Spielberg movie Amistad. Are you glad, though, that at least the movie is letting -- is helping to inform people in the United States, now, that the story exists? There's also an opera about the Amistad.

HAFFNER: Yeah, fine, I mean, not liking the Spielberg movie (unintelligible) it is not good as a movie. No, Spielberg is a very, very good man. He's a very good director. Did a very, very good work.

It's just that what we are saying is that this is an opportunity for Sierra Leone to be known. That's one advantage of the movie -- that even though all the facts will not satisfy me, the things in the movie, but it's -- this time for Sierra Leone, the fact that Hollywood and Spielberg to think of doing a play of my country is very, very significant for us and we are very, very happy about that.

So that's one advantage. It is helping to spread the name Amistad. All Americans know that name now -- Amistad. So from now on, is a starting point for us. If we want to come up with our own play, in February Spielberg has gone a long way to pave the way for us within the American community. So when we come up with our own version -- our African version -- I think I am really happy with this result.

GROSS: Charlie Haffner, I want to thank you very much.

HAFFNER: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Charlie Haffner is currently living in New Jersey and is hoping to present his play Amistad Kata-Kata in the U.S. next year.

I'm Terry Gross.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Charlie Haffner
High: Charlie Haffner wrote "Amistad Kata-Kata," a play based on the Amistad story. As a native of Sierra Leone, Haffner is critical of the new film Amistad now showing in theaters. He says the story neglected many significant events that occurred in Sierra Leone. Haffner currently lives in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Spec: Media; Africa; Sierra Leone; History; Slavery; Military; Lawsuits; Amistad
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Amistad Kata-Kata
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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