letters20from20black20america

Recently, I came across some old letters I wrote a friend back in the day. There were several, and as I read them, memories came flooding back. Funny enough, I could still smell the cologne that he sprayed on a few (we were young). But then I tried to remember the last time that I sat down and wrote a letter. Not an email or other electronic correspondence or even short thank-you card. But a letter. A thoughtful, hand-written account of my comings and goings, my thoughts and feelings. It's been years.

Perhaps this is why I find journalism professor Pamela Newkirk's latest project, "Letters from Black America," so fascinating. The collection of letters from notables like Paul Laurence Dunbar, Phillis Wheatley, Medgar Evers, Ida B. Wells, Ralph Ellison, and Zora Neale Hurston is a narrative history of the lives, thoughts, joys, and pains of black people. And to further the inherent power, emotion, energy and wisdom embedded in these letters, Newkirk is planning to bring them to life in a theatrical production.

Books on the Root: How did the idea for "Letters from Black America" originate?

Pamela Newkirk: The book grows out of my previous work, "A Love No Less: Two Centuries of African American Letters." As a journalist who often fought an uphill battle to present a multi-dimensional portrait of black life, I did that book to reveal an under-represented facet of black life—our romantic lives. While working on that project, I kept coming across other letters that fell outside the scope of romance, but deserved to be shared. I was also inspired by the book "Letters of a Nation," edited by Andrew Carroll, and believed a similar book of African American letters would fill a literary void.

BOTR: The process to select and assemble more than two hundred letters that span from the seventeenth to twenty-first century seems incredibly overwhelming. How did you manage to do it?

PN: The book includes letters which were selected out of thousands I examined over the course of five years. I reviewed many of the letters in archives across the country and in Ghana, West Africa and England, and also sent out a call for letters to scores of African Americans in entertainment, politics, academia, medicine and the like. The process involved targeting the collections of prominent African Americans while being mindful of the peaks and valleys of African-American life, including slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction, post-Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement and culminating in the election of Barack Obama. Assembling the letters proved far less challenging than securing permissions to publish them. I was taken aback by the wall of resistance I faced from the estates of prominent people but in the end was pleased by the support I received from many others including General Colin Powell, Derrick Bell, Alice Walker, and the estates of many important figures in African American life, including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to name a few.

BOTR: What do you think our correspondence says about us?

PN: It shows that while America often fell short of its ideals, African Americans rarely gave up on America. Despite centuries of slavery followed by decades of the worst kind of violence and oppression, we continued to challenge America to fulfill its promise of equality and justice for all. All the while we valiantly served in the military, raised God-fearing children and, against the odds, excelled in the arts, politics, law, academia, and the like. We have much to gain from the letters which reveal our forebears' wisdom, courage and uncompromising commitment to justice.

BOTR: What do you think about technology's increased role in our communication? Do you think we're losing something because we hardly take the time to pen letters anymore?

PN: Absolutely! While we have gained speed and convenience, we have also lost the poetry and care that characterized letters in the past. Much of our texts and e-mail are hastily written and lacking in the quiet reflection so apparent in much of the correspondence in my book. We've also lost the sentimental remnants of a loved ones handiwork—the uniqueness of a correspondent's penmanship or stationery or the special postmark or stamp. Also, because many of our notes vanish as quickly as they're read, it remains to be seen how future historians will reconstruct our lives. Unlike letters, which were often treasured like family jewels, our e-mail and commercial cards are far more disposable.

BOTR: Tell us about the process of bringing "Letters from Black America" from page to stage.

PN: I was blessed to have inspired the support of amazing actors, including Ruby Dee and Anthony Chisholm, who last week gave a standing-room-only reading from my book at the Upper West Side Barnes and Noble in Manhattan. In the past other actors, including Phylicia Rashad and the late Ossie Davis read from my love letters book.

BOTR: What letter has been most memorable to you?

PN: While I find the letters of slaves the most heart-wrenching, I am most inspired by a letter W.E.B. Du Bois wrote his fourteen-year-old daughter Yolande in 1914 while she attended a British boarding school. He was basically preparing her for the curiosity of race and lovingly advised her to ignore the ignorance around her and tap into to her inner reservoir to become a dynamic woman. He writes: "People will wonder at your dear brown and the sweet crinkly hair. But that simply is of no importance and will be soon forgotten. Remember that most folk laugh at anything unusual whether it is beautiful, fine or not. You, however, must not laugh at yourself. You must know that brown is as pretty as white or prettier and crinkly hair as straight even though it is harder to comb ..." As the mother of two African-American girls, these words still resonate today.