Staff Writer Helen Chen attended a vibrant book celebration spotlighting Black love

On November 2nd, Columbia Sociology hosted a celebration event for the publishing of Black Love Letters, an anthology co-organized by Natalie Johnson (Sociology MA’23), the project’s illustrator and visionary, and Cole Brown, also the author of Greyboy. The idea came to Johnson during the pandemic lockdown when she saw anti-Blackness pronounced sharply across the nation. “It came in a moment of strife,” said Brown, and with this anthology, Johnson hoped to build “bridges that bind us and one another.” 

For the project, Natalie and Cole reached out to friends, family, as well as Black artists and scholars they admired. For each letter they received, Natalie illustrated an accompanying artwork. Black Love Letters was published by Get Lifted Books. For this anthology, they were able to publish a wide array of love letters with contributors from Danez Smith, Morgan Jerkins, Dr. Imani Perry, John Legend, who also wrote the foreword, and so much more. 

After an initial introduction and reflecting on love during strenuous times, the panel included readings from five contributors, including Johnson and Brown. 

The first was Bill Whittaker, an award-winning television journalist for 60 Minutes. He read his submission, “Dear Dad,” reflecting on the legacy of his father who passed away when Whittaker was still a teenager, but whose influence and commitment to him and his sibling’s education has echoed into their adulthood. 

Following, was a contribution from Tembe Denton-Hurst, author of Homebodies and writer for New York Magazine. She wrote a love letter to her younger sister, where she reflected on the tenderness of their close relationship. Belinda Walker, senior producer at MSNBC, wrote a letter titled “Dear Black America” where Walker examined herself and Black people living in a country where they have been offered “a lifetime of limited choices,” but somehow still choosing to love, in its complex texture, this country where generations of Black Americans have built their life in resistance, in defiance, in their Black America.  

New York Times bestselling author of This Will Be My Undoing and Wandering in Strange Lands, Morgan Jerkins read “Dear Egypt” to the audience. Jerkins was in Munich, longing to see Egypt. She “had the freedom” but remained hesitant, when encouraged by everyone, Later in the letter, Jerkins recalled the country calling out to her “like a siren.” After her journey, she remarked that the country was “better than what the white man writes in the history books.” 

Concluding the contributors’ reading were Cole Brown’s “Iron Woman” and Natalie Johnson’s “Namesake,” respectively. Brown dedicated his letter to his mother whom the world may have recognized as a powerful and iron-willed woman, which “you are,” he wrote, but Brown grew up with his mother’s vulnerabilities as a part of his memory.  He concludes with love for his mother, “Fear of loss…that’s my love for you.” Johnson’s “Namesake” is dedicated to her aunt who passed away during the pandemic. Johnson calls her aunt’s herculean patience braiding her hair as a girl and hoped that she was happy in her lifetime, “I wish you have chosen your life.”  

As the event ran against the clock, the Q&A session was a compact one. Several questions pertained to how we can center and encourage more sharing of Black emotions. Denton-Hurst emphasized the importance of reading, “fiction builds empathy and community.” Johnson added that this project came into being with hopes of building an interactive space that can be “shared and passed along.”

Love, in all its dimensions, was the evening’s exploration. Through words, memories are brought into form, given articulation, and communicated between people. Black Love Letters gave us a tender glean into how we are all subjected to, and moved by, the love we receive—and give—in our lives. To learn more about Black Love Letters, you can visit their website.

Header Image via Arts Initiative at Columbia University