Of all of the books that I’ve come across recently, one of the most timely has to be Dear Kamala: Women Write to the New Vice President by Peggy Brooks-Bertram (available from Red Lightning Books / Indiana University Press), a collection of 115 letters written to Vice President Kamala Harris by women from around the world. I recently had the opportunity to speak with her about how the book came together, some of the events that have recently taken place in this country (which, from my perspective, only serve to make this book that much more timely and necessary), and more. Read on to see what she had to say.
Andrew DeCanniere: I truly think that your book, Dear Kamala, is such an interesting read, and I think it not only sheds light on the letter writers’ concerns, thoughts and feelings regarding Joe Biden and Kamala Harris but, more broadly, sheds light on some major issues being faced by our society in 2021. That’s one of the things that I liked about it. I am always curious to know more about other people and their experiences and perspectives. I already know my opinions very well. I’m with myself twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. But I am always curious to learn more about others.
Brooks-Bertram: I know. I feel the same.
DeCanniere: I definitely like to see things from others’ points of view. I think that’s how you learn and grow, and how you’re able to connect with others. I also think that, if you actually take the time to get to know other people, you find that you often have more in common than you might think. I think that, when it really comes down to it, people want many of the same things — they certainly want some of the same basic things.
Brooks-Bertram: Absolutely. If they’d talk to one another long enough, they’d find out that they are really quite close on some of the issues they may have thought they wouldn’t be close on — but they really are.
DeCanniere: I just feel that’s something that books such as this one help to illustrate. So many of these women express the same concerns, desires, hopes, views, so on and so forth, regardless of where they may be writing from, and regardless of any differences that may exist in their personal experiences or circumstances. I feel as though the last four years were this exceedingly divided time, and I think that the past administration had a lot to do with it. Whatever divisions existed beforehand, the actions of the previous administration only served to exacerbate those divisions and, consequently, people retreated further and further into their corners.
Brooks-Bertram: It also just leaves a foul taste in your mouth and a very strange feeling in your brain about what has happened to us.
DeCanniere: Absolutely. I think there was an officer who was quoted on television shortly after the insurrection, and they asked something to the effect of ‘Is this America?’ And I think that really sums up what so many of us had been feeling — and what so many of us had been asking ourselves — for the last four years, under the Trump administration. Is this who we are? Is this what we’ve become? Is this what America is now? I think it’s also safe to say that these last four years brought out a lot of the best in many — people who used their voices and platforms to stand up and speak out against racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia, for example — but it also brought out the worst in others.
Brooks-Bertram: I will say that I am feeling more uncomfortable out on the street than I ever have. I find myself watching for signs that can give me an idea of who is approaching me, or who I am approaching, or who I’m in the room with. For example, whether or not you wear a mask is crucial to me, or whether you are a confrontational sort of person.
DeCanniere: I definitely get it, because I feel as though there are people who are unnecessarily politicizing issues, or who hold these extremist views — people for whom such views, though anything but mainstream, seem to be some sort of matter of pride.
Brooks-Bertram: Even when it comes to the history of various unions, like the plumbers union or concrete layers union, or refrigeration or electricians or whatever. I studied and know all about the history of these groups, and what they did in terms of discriminating against Black men. They didn’t allow them to have apprenticeships in those various skill areas. As a result, you saw very few Black people owning their businesses or having a key role in businesses in those areas. The laws were set up to exclude them from having access to these apprenticeship programs. That sort of thing happened all across the country. So, for me, I am very skeptical of having any workmen coming to my home, being aware of that history.
DeCanniere: I could definitely understand why, with that history in mind, you’d be hesitant to allow someone into your home. While it is not as though everyone in those industries holds racist views, I could see how knowing that history would make one suspicious of many in those industries. And, while I think it is meant in more of an economic sense when they say “Build Back Better” — or, at least, that’s how many think of it — I think that needs to be expanded to include our society as a whole. We have an unprecedented opportunity to build our society back better than ever, if only we take it. We need to think of this time as a time to really examine who we are and what we want, and then make our society an inclusive one — a society in which nobody, regardless of their age, race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, religion, or whatever else, is left out or left behind. To me, that’s a crucial part of building back better, not just the capital improvement projects. We definitely need better transit systems, better roads and bridges, better schools and such. At the same time, we also need a more open and inclusive society.
Brooks-Bertram: I think so, too.
DeCanniere: One thing that does seem to be a common theme among the letters in the book is that many of the letters seem to bring up issues of racial equality, which is certainly something that I can understand given the last four years and, of course, what has played out in 2020 and the first few months of this year alone. One of the main things that comes to mind, of course, is the January 6th insurrection, during which many of Trump’s supporters descended on the Capitol in some sort of attempt to overthrow the the United States government.
Brooks-Bertram: I had an experience a few weeks ago where I was speaking with somebody, and I said “What do you think about this horrible insurrection?’ and the person said ‘That’s just like those other riots.’ So, here’s this person who believes the insurrection is just a little riot. You know? She was basically telling me it was just like the Black Lives Matter protests. I took that so personally.
DeCanniere: Right. I do feel as though there are some who came out of the woodwork and drew a false equivalence between the insurrection and the Black Lives Matter protests, though it is pretty apparent the two are not the same. For one thing, the Black Lives Matter protests were about drawing attention to issues of inequality and injustice. The attack on the Capitol was an attempt to overthrow the government. You can’t really say the two are the same.
Brooks-Bertram: And then, of course, there were the shootings at the spas in Georgia. I was watching the news, and an officer says that a man who just killed eight people was ‘having a bad day.’
DeCanniere: I heard that, too. It was just an absurd and offensive thing to say. To me, he sounds like an apologist, if ever there were one. People have bad days, and yet most do not end up killing people — and I’m sorry, but I don’t believe that’s why the guy went into those spas and killed those people. It’s not because he was having a bad day. Needless to say, I don’t think the officer who said that represents most officers. I think most are good people who became officers for the right reasons. However, any officer who’d say something like that is not someone I believe belongs on the police force — just as any officer who engages in abuse of power or excessive force does not belong on any police force.
All of this said, I think that I’m a realist, and I am aware of this country’s history, but I’d also like to think that a new administration is also an opportunity for things to get better in our society — and that includes things where racial equality is concerned. So many of the letters discuss the need for, or hope for, equality, not only among races, but gender equality as well.
Brooks-Bertram: Absolutely. I started this project the day Biden announced Harris as Vice President. I thought it was important to do that early, because others waited until after she was elected to begin to come together and say something. I wanted to see if women believed enough in the structure — in the system, in addition to the individuals. It was like they were willing her to win, knowing we had gotten involved very early. It was maybe the 17th of August or so, not knowing whether she would be the Vice President or not. Actually, it was the day Joe Biden announced he had selected her as his running mate. It showed me that the women who responded — and they did respond fairly quickly — were people who believed this could happen, and that they willed it to happen by believing first. Nobody said ‘Well, what if I write a letter and she doesn’t win?’ or ‘What if I write a letter and she doesn’t become Vice President?’ My response was ‘We have an opportunity to go ahead and do this. Let’s just do it.’
Everything was straightforward and really positive. I was very pleased with that. I had about 2,000 people that I knew, and apparently a few thousand people knew another few thousand, and they contacted others. That’s basically how I finally got started sharing this vision with people. I did a series of videos every morning for quite a while, talking to people about what it meant to write letters. What stress did letters have, what we know and remember about Black women writing letters to one another. In my own letter, I talked about how I fell in love with letter writing, and what was the primary incident in my life that created that feeling, as well as what happened when I wrote that letter. I was hoping women would respond to the letters, and they did. I was really quite amazed, particularly that women responded from all around the world — women from eleven countries, five continents, the islands. I was absolutely tickled pink, as my mother would say, that a Girl Scout troop in California participated. I think there were about 15 of them. They wrote these very rich letters, calling for Kamala to take a look at how she could stop the California wildfires, and at least one of them asked to please return to the Paris Climate Accord. Others expressed concerns about the polar bears not having ice floes to fish from. These are children, but they had some concerns that other people didn’t express.
DeCanniere: I take that as a really good sign. I don’t think we’re in a great place globally, where the health of the environment is concerned. We are certainly not where we need to be in order to avoid some of the most dire effects of climate change. However, I take it as a hopeful sign that younger generations view climate change with the appropriate urgency — that they view it as an important issue, and as something that we need to actively work to address. While COVID-19 is undoubtedly an existential threat, everyone needs to learn to view climate change in a similar manner, because climate change is also undoubtedly an existential threat. So, I am hopeful this marks a shift in how people view the issue, and that we can make the progress we need to make, so that we may have a healthy and sustainable future.
DeCanniere: In reading through the book, it really does strike you that there really is a diverse array of people who contributed to it — whether, for instance, we’re talking about their age, where they are writing from, or any other number of things.
Brooks-Bertram: The whole experience of putting this book together was wonderful, because one of the things it led to was that so many women responded when the call for letters went out. I was just really shocked at how many different women set up groups on Facebook. That was important for me, because I could send videos to them. I could raise questions with them. I had a colleague who worked with me, who loved social media, and so we were able to plumb the depths of social media and, quite frankly, I don’t see how anyone could do a project of this nature without social media.
DeCanniere: It really sounds like it was so integral to this whole project.
Brooks-Bertram: One big thing for me was taking a look at who these women were. One letter was from Dr. Johnetta Cole, who is a top-notch organizer and preservationist of African American history. She is also the President of the National Association of Black Women’s Clubs. She provided a letter that had been written by one of the chiefs of these clubs and, in her letter — which everyone signed off on — they talked about the need for women, but especially African American women, to do this kind of work. That really enriched this book. What it did was it showed that the women, who in my generation we referred to as ‘the legacy women’ — the women who did the groundbreaking work with African American women in terms of voting, education and organization building — and how they are different from today’s millennials, many of whom talk about issues of dealing with the LGBTQ community and their concerns. So, there was a real cut-off point among the women who responded, who they were, and what their backgrounds were. That was very different and yet, even though they were different, they had one thing in mind — getting Kamala Harris elected as the first African American / Asian Vice President. I still haven’t tied all of that together as neatly as I would like to in my own mind, but it was wonderful to have this full spectrum of women of color, beginning with the legacy organizations coming out of the progressive era, all the way up to the present day, and the young millennials. They voted, to a larger extent, than a lot of African American women did.
To have those two groups so clearly evident in this book, and to have them talking to one another, and talking about one another, was really quite nice. I think that it is something that needed to be explored even more, because the millennials were not talking to the legacy women about issues of the LGBTQ community. I got in touch with them, and I talked with them, and I had asked them if they would contribute a letter. They were reluctant to do so, and they clearly said that one of the problems they have with Kamala Harris was she didn’t seem to have a good grasp of the issues and ways to go about addressing them. So, I said ‘Well, why don’t you write a letter?’ And they had said ‘No. We don’t think we’ll do that.’ So, I said ‘Okay. Why don’t you let me write a letter to you about my thoughts regarding what you are thinking about her?’ They did allow me to do that, and it was on their podcast, and they got quite a bit of a response. I was saying that they shouldn’t judge her because of things they haven’t spoken to her about, and they certainly shouldn’t judge her because she’s married to a white man — because that was one of the questions some people had raised. They shouldn’t judge her for a prosecutorial history in California that they aren’t happy with, or because she had membership in all of the big Black women’s organizations that a lot of people couldn’t get into. That’s just what she presented with, and if we want her for Vice President, we’ll have to move beyond that. It was good to see that even though they had these concerns, they made clear that they would be voting for her. They said that they had voted, or that they would vote, for her. So, I found that very enlightening.
DeCanniere: I know that I, personally, am so glad that so many did come around and were able to get behind her. I don’t think anybody can question whether she has the qualifications or experience that are necessary. She absolutely does. And while it’s a bit early to talk about such things — given that we’re only a little more than two months into the new administration’s first term in office — I only hope that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will get re-elected in 2024, and then that Kamala Harris is elected President of the United States in 2028, and will then be re-elected in 2032. That would represent 16 years of progress — progress I really think this country needs to make.
Brooks-Bertram: I’ll tell you, I’m afraid to hope for that because I always felt that the problems with this country that we are facing today are because we have never talked about slavery. We never talked about it. We never talked about the fact that one group of people enslaved another group of people for 400 years, and then well into 100 more years, are trying to fight them and are trying to take away whatever the government provided in terms of getting rid of slavery. It’s stunning when you think about it, because what some people are clearly saying is that they don’t want Black faces in this country, and we never really examined all the efforts made to send us back to Africa.
DeCanniere: The whole thing is just extremely disgusting and disturbing. That this country still hasn’t properly dealt with its legacy where slavery is concerned is deeply troubling. Even now, in 2021, racism is still present in our society. It still continues to be a significant problem.
Brooks-Bertram: It’s incredible. Can you imagine that, in Georgia, a law has been passed that says you can’t give a drink of water and a sandwich to a person who has been standing for five hours to vote?
DeCanniere: Honestly, I think that whole thing is so transparent. The only purpose of passing a law like that is to disenfranchise voters. While I am sure there are some Republicans in the country who are opposed to the passage of such a law, it is unfortunate that there are so many who seem to be on-board with it. One of the main purposes of such a law, from my perspective, is very clearly to make it more difficult for those who are standing in line to cast their vote.
DeCanniere: It’s like there are those Republicans who are playing some sort of a game, and that game basically can be summed up in two words: I win. If, for some reason, they do not win — or even feel that they might be at risk of not winning — then it feels as though they will just keep altering the rules and laws until they hit upon the combination that will enable them to win, no matter the desire of the electorate. It seems that, for some, it is all about maintaining a stranglehold on power.
Brooks-Bertram: Absolutely. It’s terrible. One thing that I would add is that I was so happy with is how expatriates — Black, female expatriates — in Europe and Africa, in places like Sweden and Madagascar, also submitted letters. These are women who left the United States years ago because of all of this stuff, but they still organized for Kamala Harris. Even though they are living abroad, they hadn’t walked away from politics here in the U.S., and I thought that was rather extraordinary.
DeCanniere: Another thing that I thought was noteworthy, aside from so many women writing about racial issues and about issues of equality, is that there also seemed to be a feeling among many of America having come back to the world, and of America having stepped back into its role. It seems as though many felt it was a role America had abdicated with the election of Donald Trump and Mike Pence back in 2016.
Brooks-Bertram: Exactly. They did. And what the neatest thing now is that these women are very proud of this book, and very proud of their letters. Two of the writers became members of Clubhouse. It’s a new social media platform. It’s amazing. Check out Clubhouse, because these two women have launched a virtual book tour for Dear Kamala. I’ve invited four or five letter writers to read their letters and to talk about them. So, people on Clubhouse can come into the session and talk about their experiences with this book — or related experiences. That’s really a big deal, because it now shows when there’s an idea that people come to understand and to love, they’re willing to share it. Others have begun to do the same thing. In fact, on Facebook, a huge group of African American women have invited me to come this Sunday and talk about this book. Some of them are in the book. So, it’s a very interesting coming together of contributors that never would’ve happened without social media. I’m really happy that sort of thing is happening. I can’t wait for the women from India who submitted letters to join us in a session like that, because they didn’t have access.
DeCanniere: It seems like social media really helps to bring people together from around the world. Or it can, anyhow. You know, there’s this ability to bring people with the same focus, same concerns or same interests together in a way that couldn’t have happened just a short time ago, as you say.
Brooks-Bertram: And you get to see that they don’t just want to participate in a distant way. They wanted to talk to me. I’ve talked to almost all of these women. It’s really wonderful to either talk to them via Messenger, or you talk to them because they got into the Zoom session. So, it wasn’t just that they were writing letters, but they wanted to know what I thought about their letters, and whether they could make them better. As the editor, that’s what I had to do. And I just found that quite fascinating. And there were women from other countries that introduced me to their husbands, to their children. It was a wonderful experience, and certainly is something that I would do again.
DeCanniere: Last, but not least, is there anything else you wanted to add?
Brooks-Bertram: Just that everyone can get a book from Indiana University Press, or from independent bookstore owners, making sure that independent bookstores survive wherever they are. I hope people share the book with friends and what have you. And again, I am very happy and I thank all the people who responded to my call for letters. I thank them so much for putting their trust in me, with their thoughts and ideas.
Peggy Brooks-Bertram is a native of Baltimore, Maryland. She is an author, educator, social historian, and community activist. She is President and cofounder of the Uncrowned Queens Institute for Research and Education on Women Inc. She is the coeditor of Go Tell Michelle: African American Women Write to the New First Lady.