Pamela Newkirk, Letters From Black America, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009)
The kernel of a great book in Letters From Black America is clear in its first five entries, heart-rending letters by slaves to the loved ones they had been sold away from.
“My Dear Wife,” writes Abream Scriven in 1858, “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… for you and my children my pen cannot express the griffe I feel to be parted from you all.”
In the 343 pages that follow there are equally vivid testimonies to the suffering and transcendence of black life in America. An unnamed Buffalo Soldier writes to an American newspaper in 1900, telling of the racist butchery and looting of the American campaign in the Philippines. Canute Frankson in 1937 illustrates the indignities of segregation when the liner carrying him to fight as a volunteer against fascism in Spain seats him by himself in a far corner of its dining hall rather than mix races at one of its tables.
Of the book’s six sections, the three that most live up to the promise of its premise are those on family, love, and war, subjects where separation inspires the strongest feelings. “I would rather be your captive than another woman’s king,” writes Paul Laurence Dunbar to Alice Ruth Moore in 1897.
Letters uniquely enrich our understanding of history when the writers share what they feel and see: the dead come to life and speak. What makes Letters frustrating is that many of its entries seem to be chosen to mark events in black history that they don’t illuminate. W.E.B. Du Bois was a great man, but his grant application letter does little to illustrate his greatness. Arthur Schomburg was a great archivist of black life, but his correspondence is, by and large, dull, and the many boilerplate public letters to and from politicians are likewise dutiful signposts of events, but not interesting in themselves. The business correspondence of great figures does not make great reading, and the average letters of even extraordinary people often end up feeling like laundry lists.
Some familiar classics appear: Dr. King’s letter from the Birmingham jail, Frederick Douglass’s to his former master, and James Baldwin’s to his nephew. But there are also strange omissions: Malcolm X’s letter from Mecca, and not a single one of the great letters between Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. But for one letter to Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Nationalist movement of the Vietnam era is completely absent.
Pamela Newkirk, the editor, explains the missing puzzle pieces in her introduction: “When I embarked on this project, I did not anticipate how difficult it would be to secure contemporary letters or to obtain permission to publish correspondence already deposited in archives.” The resulting gaps don’t sit well with the implied comprehensiveness of the book’s title.
The few emails included suggest that the newspaper won’t be the first casualty of the death of print. The immediacy of electronic communication seems to starve language of the time for reflection needed to mature. The dignity of the opening slave letters shows that depth of thought is not based in erudition, but in the care given to each word. “A letter from you is an event in my life,” Roscoe Conkling Bruce writes to Clara Burrill in 1903. “Your last letter comforted my soul like dreamless sleep,” Zora Neale Hurston writes Langston Hughes in 1929.
There is similar power, both to comfort and to haunt, scattered through this collection. In another letter from 1937, Canute Frankson writes:
“But these people who howl like hungry wolves for our blood, must we hate them? Must we keep the flame which these masters kindled constantly fed? Are these men and women responsible for the programs of their masters, and the conditions which force them to such degraded depths? I think not…These same people are as hungry as we are…They are our fellowmen…We will build us a new society — a society of peace and plenty. There will be no color line, no jim-crow trains, no lynching.”
Letters makes more than a mountain of a promise, and while the follow-through is more than a mole-hill, the scope and perspective will leave readers wondering if they’ve really reached the summit. Still, for the patient reader, there are myriad rewards to take away from the pilgrimage.
Win Clevenger lives in Manhattan and is working on his first book.