Oh, if only Simmons Buntin, Elizabeth Dodd, and Derek Sheffield, editors of the recent anthology Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy could possibly have had any idea what kind of year 2020 would turn into, perhaps they would have slightly re-titled their book. I’m thinking “Holy Sh*t, America,” but I guess that rather misses the point, considering this book is comprised of 130 letters penned by the likes of Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a frequent foe of Trump, official Obama White House photographer Pete Souza, Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Rush, and 127 other contributors ranging from artists to environmentalists to scientists and more.
Today, against the backdrop of the coronavirus, the Black Lives Matter protests, and of course with the primary original inspiration for the book, the social and political divisiveness that went from long simmer to hot boil with the campaign and subsequent election of building tycoon and former reality TV personality Donald J. Trump to the same office formerly held by the likes of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, Dear America seems less the flash of optimism its editors perhaps had in mind and instead an outright plea. In the letters collected herein, with names such as “This Land Is (Still) Our Land” by Anna Maria Spagna, “Assembly Line Justice” by Francisco Cantú, or “Each One a Bright Light” by Lee Herrick, you will read not invective or judgment, but rather a series of heartfelt appeals to the better nature both of our nation as a whole and to every resident (note I do not say citizen) who is a part thereof.
What will perhaps strike a reader the most about this book is that, despite the fact that its motivation involved factors like the catastrophe that is our planet’s environment, the torrent of falsehoods spewed from newsrooms, blogs, and hands tapping out tweets or Facebook posts, and the outright hatred seething within so many Americans, is the genuinely hopeful tone either directly adopted or underpinning the message of most of the 130 inclusions, which take the form of prose, poetry, art, and photography (and occasionally a blending thereof).
I was particularly struck by a passage from author and poet Lee Herrick’s letterm “Each One a Bright Light,” that so mirrored our current moment. Writing about 1970, the year of his birth and shortly before he arrived in America as a 10-month-old orphan from South Korea, Herrick says:
“…upheaval and change was everywhere: the Vietnam War continued, the shootings at Kent State rocked Ohio and the world … both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died. It was two years after Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were killed. In many ways, it was a brutal time of major change. But beneath the headlines, tragic or sickening as they may be, America’s best self was always churning, always evolving.”
A brutal time of major change — what better words could we pick to describe out own times? But if Herrick and so many of the other contributors to this uplifting book are right, that change that must be coming will tend toward the better. If everyone took a moment to read just a few of the hopeful letters in Dear America, perhaps the divides would seem a bit narrower, the goals a bit more aligned, and the possibility for tolerance something more than Gatsby’s distant green light.
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