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TODAY Illustration / Nate Langston Palmer

'Black Love Letters' is an ode to community, with powerful words from names like John Legend, Tarana Burke, more

Legend and Burke are among the contributing essayists who offer a 360 degree perspective on community, joy, resilience, and much more.

/ Source: Today.com

A recent book is here to remind us that Black love can facilitate healing, joy, resilience and so much more.

Its multitude and vastness has been weaved together in the anthology "Black Love Letters," a collection of essays that was released on Oct. 23. The book includes words by the likes of activists Al Sharpton and Tarana Burke, singers John Legend and Jamila Woods, and TV producer Belinda Walker and journalist Michael Eric Dyson. The essays were edited into an anthology by author and producer Cole Brown and writer and illustrator Natalie Johnson, who each contribute an essay as well.

"Black Love Letters" is organized into five sections titled “Care,” “Awe,” “Loss,” “Ambivalence” and “Transformation,” respectively. Each section features multiple essays that offer a 360 degree perspective — and not just romantic love. The letters explore how Black love can also be platonic, familial, geographical, internal, political and so much more.

“There’s an element of ... protectionism, or safety or safeguarding that is inherent in the way that we love, because it is so often defined in relation to oppressive, opposing forces,” Brown explains of how he defines Black love in a joint interview with Johnson for TODAY.com.

The idea for the book was born during the pandemic, and largely in response to the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor in 2020, Brown and Johnson say.

"The effects of dehumanization for Black people were on display, and they're clearly old, old forces. It had gotten to this point where it was just too much," Johnson says. "So, I wanted to create this project that really just insisted on our humanity. And so, I asked different writers I knew to just give us a love letter about anything in their life ... reflecting on what it meant to be both Black and to be loved in this country at a time when it was extremely painful."

'A room full of people who knew my history before I learned their names'

Woods' essay falls in the "Care" section. It's addressed to her grandmother Joycetta, who picked "200 pounds of cotton a day" in Arkansas before eventually opening her own restaurant with her husband in Mississippi. Woods writes that her grandmother later closed her restaurant and moved up North when the "Holy" singer was born to help raise her.

They attended church together when Woods was a kid, she recalls in "Black Love Letters."

"After service, I'd check my face in the mirror, counting how many red lips dapped my cheekbones — look how big I'm getting — don't I look just like Joycetta, especially in the eyes," the Brown University alum writes. "It was the odd comfort of being in a room full of people who knew my history before I learned their names, who already loved me because I belonged to her."

The singer says that reflecting on that time has had her since recording her grandmother when they spend time together.

"I'm stocking up on memories in fear I won't have enough time to unlock them all," she writes. "I'm embarrassed of the ways I've started to grieve you before you're even gone."

jamila woods gandfather and grandmother
Jamila Woods' grandparents.@jamilawoods via Instagram

The intention of Woods' heartfelt letter, and many of her previous works, are all to convey one point, she says.

“You are raising me even now,” Woods writes. "I have been writing the same poem over and over again in different words. I love you. I love you. I love you."

'You are the love of my life'

Belinda Walker, a senior producer for MSNBC, writes her love letter in the "Awe" section to Black America. In it, she shouts out every aspect of Blackness, from summer popsicles and fire hydrants to Jack and Jill, single-parent households and blackberry skin.

She concludes her list of examples with an overarching point.

"Your pain, your struggle, your joy, your success, your music, your light, your rhythm, your laughter, your love, your love, your love is the marvel of the world," Walker writes. "Even if the world tries to tell you different."

"So in those moments when the noise of negativity — from within and without — is so loud you can't hear yourself think, let yourself feel," she adds.

"And know without a shadow of a doubt that you are the love of my life."

“Your love is the marvel of the world."

Belinda Walker, "black love letters"

'Your absence is loud'

Tarana Burke, founder of the Me Too movement, pens a letter in the "Loss" section. It's addressed to her late grandmother, which Johnson says is on brand for Burke, her activism and the Black community at large.

"You can clearly see the seeds of Tarana Burke's activism in the lessons imparted from her grandmother," Johnson says. "And I think that is also really unique about Black people. We are constantly rooted in our heritage and constantly rooted in the people that came before us and pay homage to the shoulders we stand on."

In Burke's letter, she grieves the loss of her grandmother and of the countless people who died during the pandemic.

"Your absence is loud," she writes. "And in the moments when I remember empathy, I think of the monumental losses so many of us have experienced during these tumultuous times, and the noise becomes deafening. So many of our elders were forgotten, discounted and tossed aside in the race to solve a worldwide problem."

She also references a proverb to describe how the loss of elders is also the loss of knowledge and experience.

"The proverb is, 'Every time an elder dies, a library burns to the ground," she adds. "If that's true, then when a Black grandma dies, it's like losing ancient scrolls."

Tarana Burke and her grandmother
Tarana Burke and her grandmother.@taranajaneen via Instagram

'The Movement is your inheritance'

Brown says his team provided general prompts to the writers. That invitation for openness gave Rev. Sharpton space to write to his grandson Marcus Al Sharpton Bright, 5, in the "Ambivalence" section. He felt it was something difference, rather than "one of the more expected outcomes" like his fellow civil rights activists John Lewis, Jesse Jackson or Martin Luther King, Jr., Brown says.

"He immediately said, 'I want to write a letter to my grandson because I never thought I would be old,'" Brown recalls.

Sharpton writes that it was "surreal" to become a grandfather because "another day was never guaranteed" in his line of work.

"I was raised by men you'll read about one day — John Lewis, Jesse Jackson," Sharpton writes in his letter. "They taught me how to organize, how to press truth to power. But we never discussed retirement plans. They didn't bother teaching me how to age. Our leaders had short life expectancies in those days."

But now that Sharpton has aged, he expects his grandson to as well, hoping that he will embark on his own journey to "advance the cause."

"Marcus Al Sharpton Bright, you carry a name that I thought would end with me," Sharpton says.

"I don't expect you to become a civil rights leader. I don't want you to become a civil rights leader. But I do expect you to struggle; you must advance the cause of equality in whatever way suits you. You must be at least as determined to strive as they are to keep you down. The movement is your inheritance," reads Sharpton's letter.

Al Sharpton and his grandson
Al Sharpton with his grandson, Marcus Al Sharpton Bright.@mr_marcusal via Instagram

'We are reveling in this glory together'

After experiencing the care, the awe, the loss and the ambivalence of what comes with living life as a Black person, there is transformation.

In the transformation section, Alexandra Elle, author of books like "How We Heal: Uncover Your Power and Set Yourself Free," pens a letter to an unexpected subject: Herself. For her letter, she chooses to reflect on her personal growth with herself and others amid a full range of emotions.

"There is so much beauty to witness on this journey. Seeing you so clearly be yourself is something I've been waiting for," Elle writes.

"We are reveling in this glory together."