MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
BLOCK: African American Women Write to the New First Lady."
T: Correct reference is University at Buffalo.] And those two women join us now. Welcome to Barbara Seals Nevergold and Peggy Brooks-Bertram. Hello to both of you.
BLOCK: Hi, Michele.
BLOCK: Hello. It's great to be here.
: Now, I understand that you got this idea in part when you saw that New Yorker magazine cover where Barack Obama and Michelle Obama are portrayed as fist-bumping terrorists.
BLOCK: Yes, that's right. You know, I think that that was kind of the spark, perhaps, but I think that the idea was growing, really, throughout the primary as we followed everything that was going on - you know, watching Michelle coming forward and taking on a more active role, and becoming more of a person that we could identify with and that we liked. And so, after the election, one day - and maybe about a week after, I think I said to Peggy, now, Peggy, what if we ask women to write letters to Michelle? Letters of support, letters of love, you know, letters of adulation, if you would, because we think she's going to need that when she gets to the White House.
BLOCK: And I should add that they really turned out to be letters that were really very complex, in addition to those other adjectives.
: You know, when you talk about complex letters, Peggy, I'm thinking about one letter in particular. It's on page - I've got the book right here - it's on page 239. It says, dear Michelle, open the closet door on mental illness. And it's a woman who describes a situation she recalled when she was a child walking home from school with three friends. And she says, as we walked down Stanton Street, we saw this woman walking toward us. She was disheveled, disoriented, limping along. My friend started to laugh and point saying, look at that lady. She looks crazy. I looked at the lady. It was my mother. That's what the writing said.
BLOCK: Yes, and it's the power of letters like this where women are, you know, expressing their deepest feelings about problems that we see in the overall society that - but that we can make them personal. And that's what this letter did for us as well.
BLOCK: And I think in many ways that women use their own personal experiences to address issues that they would like to see Michelle spend some time on.
: It's one thing to offer advice. I certainly have heard an earful of this almost everywhere I go, from women who wind up talking about Michelle. And people say things like, don't forget where you came from or, you know, watch the kind of colors you wear because the world is watching. But it's another thing to put that on the page and actually put this in a book that I assume you hope that Michelle Obama will read one day. That takes a lot of gumption.
BLOCK: Oh, absolutely. And I might tell you that one of the things that Barbara and I have talked about a lot is the themes that emerge in this book. And on the one hand, there are some things that are sweet and gentle, but at the same time, there's some things that resonate, that rise up in a way that we wouldn't expect ,possibly.
And one of those themes has to do with the issue of the intraracial color line and women who very clearly point out that it was very important for them that Michelle Obama was a recognizably black woman, for example, that she wasn't light-skinned with blue eyes and still classified as black, but rather she was a black woman and that it gave them a whole new feeling about their own lives. I really thought that was very powerful, because that tends to be a subject that we don't go towards so readily because it has such deep pain associated with it.
: Peggy, you know, it seems like many of the women seem to be saying in their letters that the world might see them differently, might see them through a new lens, because of Michelle Obama.
BLOCK: Oh, absolutely. You know, and this is particularly for women who were dark-skinned women who thought, oh, my goodness. Like one woman who said, I now believe I can bring my black babies into this world. That this had enormous meaning, and it really is something that we need to explore even further after this book.
: I'm interested in the letters that stand out to you, the ones that still sort of live with you now that the book has been published, Peggy.
BLOCK: I should tell you the letter that continues to cause me to weep, which is our front bookend, is an absolutely striking poem written, called "In Anticipation of You." And she opens her poem saying that: We vomited, swallowed, and engorged oceanic passages, sardined inside the darkness of carriers that moved culture, kindred and home from tribal remembrance to insulated reality. We unlocked New World words and hid learning, seldom to be uttered aloud or mistaken as schooled vessels, bright, deep, and full of knowing.
BLOCK: And all we carried, dreamed, hoped, dared and desired would at last be lifted and delivered from the shoulders of Sojourner Truth, the soapbox of Maria Stuart, the feat of Harriet Tubman, the words of Phillis Wheatley, the song of Marian Anderson, the church women's education of Nannie Helen Burroughs, the court and newsrooms of Mary Anne J. Carrie(ph), the sacrifice and service of Anna Murray Douglass, the spiritual awakening of Jarena Lee, Amanda Berry Smith and Julia Foote - all armed, armored and amazing foremother ancestors, all in anticipation of you.
: And we should give credit to the woman who actually wrote that beginning letter. Her name is Arlette Miller Smith(ph).
: And she's an associate professor in the department of English, and she's co-director of the African-American studies department at John Fisher College in Rochester, New York.
BLOCK: Right. And the one that ended it was written by Janine Wilkins(ph). And it is called, "We Are Going With You." And that just stands out for me because it is so, again, inclusive and meaningful in that women are saying to Michelle, you may be going on this journey, but you're not going alone. We are going with you. We'll be there with you, beside you, behind you. Perhaps sometimes, even in front of you. But we want you to know that we are standing here with you. And we're, you know, going to accompany you on this journey. So that letter has stood with, you know, has resonated with me and has stayed with me as being very powerful.
BLOCK: It was - that was the closing. And in between all of that, all these letters saying some other things about this historical journey that some of these women took us on. And the final one concluding that we are all with you. We're all going with you. And that was stunning for me.
: Peggy Brooks-Bertram, Barbara Seals Nevergold, thanks so much for spending time with us.
BLOCK: Well, thank you, Michele.
BLOCK: Thank you.
: Barbara Seals Nevergold and Peggy Brooks-Bertram are co-founders of the Uncrowned Queens Institute for Research and Education on Women at the University of Buffalo. They're also editors of a new book called "Go, Tell Michelle: African-American Women Write to the New First Lady."
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