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NPR Arts & Life

For Black History Month, Letters To Reveal And Inspire

Letters preserve a history that often doesn't show up in official accounts, says writer K. Tempest Bradford.
Letters preserve a history that often doesn't show up in official accounts, says writer K. Tempest Bradford.

Technology is always blamed for the loss of this or that traditional activity or cultural artifact. In February we take time to bemoan the waning art of letter writing, a tradition eroded away by social networks, email, typewriters, or non-quill pens — depending on the era the lamenter hails from.

No matter which device you choose to blame, it is a fact that Americans send fewer personal letters, cards, and postcards through the mail year by year. And just as with any fading tradition, there is a small cadre of adherents determined to revitalize the art in their personal lives, even if only during one month of the year.

In 2012 author Mary Robinette Kowal inaugurated , challenging people to join her in writing and sending at least one piece of mail every post day in February. I took the challenge in 2013 (and now contribute posts to the blog), the same year fountain pen aficionado Eric Schneider launched a similar challenge: , InCoWriMo for short. Thousands have signed up for one or the other in recent years, rising to and in some cases far exceeding the challenge.

The decline in letter writing isn't only a problem for entities like the U.S. Postal Service. The loss of letters impacts our culture to the core, because letters are a chronicle of history. Through them, people of every age, background, social standing, and culture add folded and stamped rectangles to a historical tapestry shared by official accounts, news stories, and later revisions. Without letters, we lose an integral way of seeing and understanding history.

That's an important problem to consider during Black History Month. As a black woman, I've always experienced and filtered my understanding of black history through multiple layers: What I learned in school, what I learned from books and documentaries, and what I learned from listening to my family. This last, more intimate view of history has always been the most valuable to me. And so I look for it beyond my relatives and ancestors — in collections of letters.

In February, the focus is often on American letters written during slavery, the Civil War, or Reconstruction. I'm just as interested in letters from the more recent past, from black Americans from throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, and from ordinary folks as well as figures credited with changing the world. I've picked several excellent collections here; perhaps reading these letters will inspire you to take up your good pen, dust off some old stationery, and engage in an activity that connects you to humans as far back as the beginning of civilization.

is a speculative short-story writer by night, a technology journalist by day, and an activist blogger in the interstices.

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