Today is National Letter Writing Day and to commemorate the often-overlooked observance, we caught up with Tamara Winfrey Harris, author of The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America, about her new book, Dear Black Girl: Letters From Your Sisters on Stepping Into Your Power, and the power of letter writing for healing Black women.
MN: Tell me a little about what started the Dear Black Girl Movement
Tamara: I was doing a workshop with two dear friends of mine and it was going to be an inter-generational workshop for Black women and Black girls. There were going to be about fifteen girls on hand, and I just thought it would be nice if each of those girls could leave the workshop with a letter from a Black woman. So I went to social media and I just sent out a call on Facebook and just said, “Hey, friends, people who know me, can you just, could you just send a letter to a Black girl. Send it to me and, I’ll hand out.” So I issued that call. Next thing I know, the request goes viral, and instead of like twelve letters I ended up with more than fifty and they came from all over the world. I got a letter from Switzerland, got a letter from Canada. Somebody sent a letter and they sent like a stack of journals for girls.
Tamara: Black women really answered the call and then when I started writing like reading the letter. The first one I read, like, I ugly cried, like, they were beautiful. They were everything that I would ask for. You know, I asked women to be vulnerable and to be loving, non-respectability politics. I didn’t want letters where, you know, Black women were telling girls like, you need to do this and you need to be like this. But I wanted letters where we talk to them as former Black girls and made ourselves vulnerable and boosted them. And I think the Mayes ing letters, and I got these amazing letters.
MN: That’s powerful.
Tamara: It was just really important to me that it continued because I feel like Black girls both need and deserve that kind of support. I continued to accept letters through my website, but the difficult thing is, it’s just me, I get these wonderful letters but I pass them along to Black girls and groups of Black girls as I can. And so that was part of the reason for writing a book and assembling letters in a book because I just wanted these letters to reach as many girls as possible.
MN: What did you hope to accomplish when you put out the call for the original twelve letters?
Tamara: I had noticed when traveling for my book, The Sisters Are Alright, my first book, that sometimes when I was in rooms with Black women and we were talking about, being Black and being female, that when women talked about ourselves, we talked about all the ways we were all right. And all the ways that we defy stereotypes of Black women, but sometimes when the conversations turned to younger Black women and turned to Black girls, suddenly, the tone was different. Suddenly, you know, some of those stereotypes seemed to be coming into play. So, you know, Black women as a whole aren’t say, promiscuous, but these young women they’re just too free with their bodies. You know, Black women as a whole aren’t Sapphire or too loud, but these girls… Suddenly, it became something different.
Tamara: Then, the more I talked to young women and young girls, I heard a lot of them say that they don’t always feel like they get the support that they need from older women and some even said that they feel like in many ways, that it’s sometimes their mothers and grandmothers and teachers who reinforce some of the stereotypes and some of the harmful misogynoir that they face. And so, I wanted, through these letters, for us to model the way we should be loving each other.
MN: What can people expect from Dear Black Girl the book?
Tamara: I think that it models the way that I hope that Black women and Black girls can love each other. We can’t be reflective of the broken way that other people regard us. You know, we have to come to each other with love and, vulnerability, which is the important part. I think, sometimes, the ways we try to treat each other is driven by fear. It’s because we know how high the stakes are for Black women. Older Black women, we know what happens when Black girls stumble and fall. We know there’s not a lot of grace given but our response to that can’t be that we don’t give each other grace.
Tamara: Our response has to be that we’re loving. So I have assembled just over thirty letters from a variety of women. I made an effort to make sure I was, was hearing from people from a diversity of Black women experiences. So, I included trans women and I included women who are adopted, And I included, women who are biracial, women who are raised by their grandparents, women who have been great friends, women who have been bad friends. I tried to cover all the different experiences and all of the different ways that we show up in the world to just talk to each other about our experiences and say, “Hey, here’s what I went through. Here are the joys and the challenges I and I just want to share with you and I hope it’s, and I hope it’s helpful.”
MN: It sounds like letter writing can be healing for both the writer and the recipient.
Tamera: I think writing sometimes is a form of therapy. I know sometimes people suggest journaling and things like that to help you process what’s going on in your life. So, I do think it’s helpful. I think sometimes if we’re able to free ourselves and talk about our experiences, we’re able to love other people better. It can be like freeing and liberating to write letters. But then it’s lovely to receive them. Cause who even does that any more? When’s the last time you received the letter? It takes so much more care than we’re used to. Now, you know, I just send a text. I don’t even spell all of the words out. I delivered a stack of letters to a bunch of girls at a program and one girl was like, “Wow, no one has ever done this for me before.” She was just amazed that someone had actually sat down and written a letter for her.
MN: You’ve laid an amazing framework, so in addition to gifting Dear Black Girl to a young woman, how else can Black women pick up the baton and keep it going?
Tamara: I encourage people and invite them to visit my website: tamerawinfreyharris.com and there’s a section called “Letters to Black girls” you can submit your own letter or request a letter for a Black girl, but please don’t just request one. Write one as well.
MN: Should women also consider writing letters to the Black girls that they know personally?
Tamara: Yes, I think it’s also really powerful to sit down and think about what you really want the girls in your life to know, whether it’s your daughter or your niece or the girl next door. If you were really sitting down and having a heart-to-heart with her and speaking to her as another human being, what would you tell her? Take some time and, and pick out some nice paper or pick out in a cool black girl card and write her what you would want her to know. I know that she will appreciate it and she will appreciate you sitting down, even if she doesn’t agree fully with what you told her, the fact that you sat down with love and imparted a message to her and you took time and you were thinking about her when you did it. I think that means a lot. We know that Black girls don’t always get the care that they deserve so show her that you care.<
Dear Black Girl is available for pre-order at penguinrandomhouse.com