This week my grandmother called to ask me when I’d be sending her pictures. I’m not ten years old anymore and thus didn’t remember this is something grandmothers enjoy even after the decade of traumatic results of school picture days. The truth is that you will more likely find me tweeting nonsequitar thoughts about peace and pop culture than remembering to purchase stamps to allow snail mail to live long and prosper. In the age of online bill pay and virtual friendships, I often forget about the joyful art of letter writing. While I wish to be a part of the crafty stationary set, I am like most in the twenty-somethings set who forget to get out the envelopes and send actual, ink-loving letters.
This oversight made me think of how wonderful communication artifacts of the postal lineage sort are when examining the history of social movements, and once more, long forgotten love letters. Amid the chaos of my own campus organizing, when several screens of email overwhelm me , I marvel at what I imagine the stress of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s life was like. SNCC coordinated the printing and distribution of thousands of flyers by hand and managed to keep field officers across the country informed of urgent direct action needs of single land lines. Imagine how many letters they had to write! Still, I imagine young people, elders and women across the country whose hands answered those calls for change and who now have been omitted from the collective caricature of the Freedom Movement narrative and replaced with one beloved King. “Now that he is safely dead,” as it has been written, we have a responsibility to challenge, rewrite and invite back the voices who have allowed us to be here to write about our very own struggle in the twilight.
While our generation may require new tools and even newer stategies, I sometimes crave the voice and visibility of our foremothers, brothers and sisters. I imagine writing to them with my questions, worries and dreams for the world they left us, which we know we struggle for because we have a deep love for its potential. Ms. Ella Baker is one of those great people. She was a pivotal voice in the growth and development of SNCC and Freedom Movement history but is often omitted from most tellings of the era because of her strong opinion and frustration with the idolization of Dr. King, the lack of shared leadership amongst top Movement organizers and respect for women. Ms. Ella taught that we all have knowledge to heal and organize our own communities, no matter our societal status. She was the original embodiment of June Jordan’s often cited “we are the ones we have been waiting for.”
It was only a few weeks ago that I wondered aloud if Ms. Baker would ever be a household name the way I feel she deserves. The pop culture telling of the era is affirmed from picture book to movie screen that Rosa Parks simply sat down that December day because her feet were tired, completely omitting the vast network of change agents training for change. I joked that it would be up to us, me and you, to spread the word from sea to shining Facebook profile. I thought we should flood every editorial page, blog, and text message as acts of rememberance and love for those whose lives we step into with your community work. I decided I would begin to send postcards to friends and family sharing with them what I appreciate about them in my life coupled with a historical figure or community member who inspires me and ask who they would like to share with me.
While this is an exciting thought, I knew I would have to change my ways and befriend the world of stamps to get my love letters out there. And then I ran across the news that would allow Ms. Baker’s name to be evoked daily. Yes, the United States Postal Service is releasing a series of Civil Rights Movement stamps and she will be accompanied by Daisy Bates, Mary Church Terrell, Medgar Evars, Fannie Lou Hamer and more…!
I won’t deny that the thought of mailing off even a mundane bill with this lineage of hope made me a little teary eyed. These are people who worked their lives away to organize, petition, march, and act for freedom who could not even walk into a post office 60 years ago. Yes, I did do a Muppet dance on their behalf at this fine news.
I will write letters. I will mail send my grandmother those pictures she’s been asking for. I will write you a postcard. And in each one I might include a drawing, a short story, a thank you perhaps to Mrs. Hamer for getting sick and tired and standing up and making sure I could grow up to be a young brown woman who knows, for certain, that my voice matters. I will honor their freedom with my own and write to connect and transcend the false narrative of separation. I will feel the cool paper in my hands and be grateful for the trees, the activists, the artists who gave their life for me. You can’t tweet heart in just the same way. I’m realizing more each day that my every word can be a memorial and dedication towards peace. Each letter can be a radical root for a growing social love.
I hope you will unplug for a few minutes, pick up your pen and join me in writing a letter to someone who makes you feel alive. Write to your neighborhood 3rd graders. Write to your congresswoman. Write to President Obama and urge him to back off from redeployment and end this war. Let Ms.Fannie Lou Hamer bless the message. Let her show you the way. Write to someone who could use a dose of your love. And I bet your grandmother could probably use a few pictures of that fancy new beard you’re sportin’.
With heart and not resting till freedom comes,
(For future reading/learning/organizing check out the book Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision as well as the Ella’s Daughter’s coalition network)