Between the Lines

In an instant our most heartfelt emotions are conveyed via e-mail, text messages and cell phones, the remnants of our communiqués often vanishing as quickly as they appeared.  We are liberated from the inconvenience of handwritten notes, purchasing and affixing stamps, locating a mailbox and delayed gratification. But surveying the rich letters of our past may cause us to question what has been lost in the name of progress. These letters, replete with personalized stationery, stylized penmanship, sentimental postmarks and quiet reflection, were eagerly anticipated, read and reread and cherished like family jewels. They are irreplaceable relics — the stuff of our personal and public history. And they are increasingly a dying art and lost historical artifacts.

The fleeting tradition of letter writing was in part the inspiration for Letters from Black America, a collection of more than 200 letters that traces the footprints, large and small, of a people from bondage to self-determination; from the Civil War to the War in Iraq; and from dusty plantations to the glistening White House. The correspondence of unsung slaves, soldiers, lovers, fathers, mothers, artists and activists are woven together with those of historical giants — from writers Phillis Wheatley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin Alice Walker and Toni Morrison; to activists and statesmen  Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells Barnett, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Colin Powell.

The likely missives of the extraordinary are matched by the equally poignant letters of the ordinary who, pen in hand, share their joy and pain; ecstasy and heartache.

"My dear son Cato," writes Hannah Grover on June 3, 1805. "I long to see you in my old age. I live in Caldwell with Mr. Grover the Minister of that place. Now my dear son I pray you to come and see your dear old Mother…. I am a poor old servant. I long for freedom. And my Master will free me if any body will ingage to maintain me …. I love you Cato you love your Mother You are my only son."

On Sept. 19, 1858, Abream Scriven wrote his wife Dinah to inform her that he had been sold: "My Dear Wife," he writes. "I take the pleasure of writing you these few with much regret to inform you that I am sold to a man by the name of Peterson a Trader and stays in New Orleans … Give my love to my father and mother and tell them good bye for me and if we Shall not meet in this world I hope to meet in heaven. My dear wife for you and my children my pen cannot express the [grief] I feel to be parted from you all."

We're taken behind the public façade of scholars and activists: In a letter to his wife from a state prison in 1960, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. writes: "I know this whole experience is very difficult for you to adjust to especially in your condition of pregnancy but as I said to you yesterday, this is the cross we must bear for the freedom of our people."

And W.E.B. Du Bois, the eminent scholar and activist, morphs into the doting father who tries to brace his 14-year-old Yolande for the curiosity of race at her British boarding school. "People will wonder at your dear brown [skin] and the sweet crinkly hair," Du Bois writes in 1914. "But that is simply of no importance … 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 though it is harder to comb."

In 1937 a disheartened young soldier serving in the Spanish Civil War writes of the pain of being segregated on the Queen Mary during his voyage to Europe. "That ship is really a marvel of man's inventive mind. Its size and beauty is a credit to the genius of the human race," wrote Canute Frankson. "I sure appreciated the opportunity of being on that ship. But I'm still burning up because they segregated, or may I say Jim-Crowed me. I cannot yet see how segregation, that despicable scourge of human society, could be alongside of such beauty. But it sure enough was. And with bells on."

And in November, following Barack Obama's historic election, Alice Walker wrote to express her soaring pride as an African American and southerner. "Dear Brother President (elect)," she wrote. "You have no idea, really, of how profound this moment is for us. Us being the black people of the Southern United States. You think you know, because you are thoughtful, and you have studied our history. But seeing you deliver the torch so many others carried, year after year, decade after decade, century after century, only to be brought down before igniting the flames of justice and of law, is almost more than the heart can bear."

What emerges is a multi-dimensional portrait of black life, a life long fraught with hardship, despair, and injustice but sustained by prayer, faith, humor and love.

In the end, it is apparent that while America so often fell far short of its ideals, African Americans rarely gave up on America. Here they loved their families, served their country in war and civilian life, expressed their humanity in the arts and fought a valiant and uphill battle for equality and an elusive acceptance. They remained on the soil they had tilled, and on which their blood spilled, determined to someday reap the rewards of their efforts.

We all have much to gain from the wisdom, passion, courage, and uncompromising commitment to justice contained in these letters. It is my hope that this volume will help inspire a greater appreciation for the collection and preservation of African-American letters.

 

Tags: african-american, african-american history, black history, books, history, letter writing, letters

    • Pamela Newkirk
    • Pamela Newkirk is professor of journalism at New York University and the author of Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media, which won the prestigious National Press Club Arthur Rouse Award for Media Criticism. She is also editor of Letters from Black America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux and Beacon Press), and A ...

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