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Letters from Black America: Intimate Portraits of the African American Experience

Letters from Black America: Intimate Portraits of the African American Experience

by Pamela Newkirk (Editor)

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The first-ever narrative history of African Americans told through their own letters
Letters from Black America fills a literary and historical void by presenting the spectrum of African American experience in the most intimate way possible—through the heartfelt correspondence of those who lived through monumental changes and


The first-ever narrative history of African Americans told through their own letters
Letters from Black America fills a literary and historical void by presenting the spectrum of African American experience in the most intimate way possible—through the heartfelt correspondence of those who lived through monumental changes and pivotal events, from the American Revolution to the war in Iraq, from slavery to the election of Obama.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“As the country enters a fresh atmosphere around our latest president, Letters from Black America strikes a vital, rich chord in which to breathe the new air.”—Karen Long, Cleveland Plain Dealer
“While this unique collection of letters represents a frank depiction of the black experience, the great achievement is that these writings often go far beyond race and class to simply tell the story of the human experience in America.”—Allen McGinley, Library Journal, starred review
“A rich array of ‘linguistic snapshots,’ more than 200 letters that range from a slave writing his wife on the eve of being sold to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.’”—Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today
Letters from Black America is itself a work of art.”—Andrew Carroll, editor of Letters of a Nation and War Letters
“An extraordinary peek at what went on behind the closed doors of black America for nearly three hundred years. Notables are reduced to human beings, and the anonymous come to life. These extraordinary snapshots of the past will provide hours of informative pleasure and delightful reading. Wonderfully done.” —James McBride, author of The Color of Water
“There can’t be a better way to salute Black History Month than to read this collection. It gathers everything from the desperate letters of 19th century slaves—spouses who’d been sold, never to see each other again—to expressions of friendship between poets. . . . Drawn from two centuries, these letters are a lesson drawn from the heart of African-American history.” —Anne Stephenson, Arizona Republic
Letters from Black America . . . presents the pantheon of the African-American experience in a unique and intimate format, through the heartfelt correspondence of both the ordinary and extraordinary men and women who lived it.” —Joy T. Bennett, Ebony
“This collection offers an intimate look at the joys and concerns in the lives of ordinary and famous black Americans.” —Vanessa Bush, Booklist
“What makes this book powerful is not only the letters of famous people—Martin Luther King, Booker T. Washington, Alice Walker—but the missives of ordinary folks. Annie Davis, for example, wrote President Lincoln a year after the Emancipation Proclamation. ‘It is my desire to go free . . . my mistress won’t let me. You will please let me know if we are free and what I can do. I write to you for advice.’” —Billy Helton, New York Post
“Ah, the lure and lore of the letter! Nowadays we turn to cell phones, e-mail and instant messaging to connect, but when you crack open Pamela Newkirk’s Letters from Black America you’ll see that the pen is mightier than the thumb.” —Mika Ono, Essence
“An instructive, moving—even delightful—primer on the myriad facets of African-American private and public life.” —Publishers Weekly
“This long-overdue collection by writers from all walks of life is moving, illuminating, and difficult to put down.”—Marian Wright Edelman, president, Children’s Defense Fund
“When we think of great memorials and monuments, we often envision structures crafted out of steel or stone. But I believe the letters in Pamela Newkirk’s tremendous collection represent perhaps the most powerful and enduring legacy to the strength, creativity, genius, and resilience of the African American community. Letters from Black America is itself a work of art.” —Andrew Carroll, editor of Letters of a Nation and War Letters
“Seldom has the intimate life of a people been more variously revealed. Think of the day when there may only be downloaded e-mail, and then thank Pamela Newkirk for the enduring significance, poignancy, and delight of her Letters from Black America.”
—David Levering Lewis, Julius Silver University Professor, New York University, and author of W.E.B. Du Bois
“From slavery to post-9/11, from Phillis Wheatley to Barack Obama, the book gathers correspondence from politicians, writers, and academics, as well as slaves, sharecroppers, servicemen, and domestic workers. . . . the most moving entries are the barely literate and astonishingly painful pleas for family, and for simple justice, by otherwise nameless individuals of the Jim Crow era. Here are people with no hope left other than the belief that death will bring the reunion in Heaven of husband and wife, mother and son. . . . Each section has a brief introduction by Newkirk, just enough to set the stage.” —Robert Saunderson, School Library Journal
“A unique look at the inner thoughts of many of the most notable African Americans in history. The format enables a reader to pick up the book for just a minute or two to read a particular letter. But the entries can also hold one’s interest for hours if an entire section or the whole book is read in one sitting.” —The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education

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Letters from Black America

Intimate Portraits of the African American Experience

Beacon Press

ISBN: 9780807001158

Hannah Grover to Cato, June 3, 1805
     "My dear son Cato, 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 - Or send me twenty dollars and I will come and see you in Philadelphia - And if you cant come to see your old Mother pray send me a letter and tell me where you live, what family you have and what you do for a living. I am a poor old  servant. I long for freedom - And my Master will free me if any body will ingage to maintain me so that I do not come upon him - I love you Cato, you love your Mother - You are my only son

This from your affectionate Mother -

Hannah Van Buskerk now - Hannah Grover

Abream Scriven, September  19, 1858

     "My Dear Wife, 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. I am here yet But I expect to go before long but when I get there I want to send you some things but I don't know who to send them by but I will try to get them to you and my children. 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 griffe I feel to be parted from you all. I remain your truly husband until death.
Abream Scriven

Roscoe Conkling Bruce to Clara Burrill:
January 3, 1903
Dear heart, I have missed you a very great deal - how much no mortal but me can quite realize. (You, dearie, are an immortal!) I think of you literally all of the time. In my office my mind refuses to bind itself to routine duties and insists upon planning dresses and tomes and receptions and the Lord knows what for you. I love you, darling, with all my soul. My life you are. I pray that we may be always the creatures of poetry and romance that now we are; I pray that I may make you always happy; I pray that your life will not be narrowed by marriage but enlarged: I pray that we may be useful and worthy always. Let us, whatever comes, never forsake our scholarly interests; let us never degrade our ideals; let us always live on the summits of experience; and let us always be simple and noble and sensible and just..

Your devoted, Ros

Clara: to Roscoe


My darling,
     So busy have I been during the last few days that I haven't had time to write to my darling but I have thought of him continually. Indeed, dearie, I have found difficulty in studying for my exams so wholly have all my thoughts been with you. You may be surprised to hear it, but I find more pleasure in thinking of you than I do in studying for mid-year exams ...
     Oh dearie I shall be so happy when I am with you always. And, dearie, let's do all in our power to make others happy. Let us not be selfish in our love. Let us not leave our mothers alone and have them feel that in their last days they are unloved .I want Mama to feel that as long as we have a home she has one too. I hope you'll let her know.

Your own Clara

W.E.B. Du Bois to Yolande Du Bois,

October 29, 1914

Dear Little Daughter:
      I have waited for you to get well settled before writing. By this time I hope some of the strangeness has work off and that my little girl is working hard and regularly.
      Of course, everything is new and unusual. You miss the newness and smartness of America. Gradually, however, you are going to sense the beauty of the old world: its calm and eternity and you will grow to love it.
      Above all remember, dear, that you have a great opportunity. You are in one of the world's best schools, in one of the world's greatest modern empires. Millions of boys and girls all over this world would give almost anything they possess to be where you are. You are there by no desert or merit of yours, but only by lucky chance. Deserve it, then. Study, do your work. Be honest, frank and fearless and get some grasp of the real values of life. You will meet, of course, curious little annoyances. People will wonder at your dear brown and the sweet crinkly hair. But that is simply of no importance, and will soon be 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 though it is harder to comb. The main thing is the YOU beneath the clothes and skin -- the ability to do, the will to conquer, the determination to understand and know this great, wonderful, curious world.... [Don't shrink from new experiences and custom. Take the cold bath bravely. Enter into the spirit of your big bedroom. Enjoy what is and not pine for what is not. Read some good, heavy, serious books just for discipline. Take yourself in hand and master yourself. Make yourself do unpleasant things, so as to gain the upper hand of your soul.
      Above all, remember your father loves you and believes in you and expects you to be a wonderful woman.]
      I shall write each week and expect a weekly letter from you.
Lovingly yours,



Excerpted from Letters from Black America by . Excerpted by permission of Beacon Press, a division of Random House, Inc.
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Meet the Author

Pamela Newkirk is the editor of A Love No Less: More Than Two Centuries of African American Love Letters and the author of Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media. An award-winning journalist and professor of journalism at New York University, she lives in New York City.


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