The form poses moral challenges to readers as well as technical challenges for writers, which the contributors to Radical Hope navigate with varying degrees of success. The dual address requires writers to provide outside readers with information the recipient wouldn’t need (“As you know, you’re half Chinese,” writes Lisa See, to her grandson; “When you wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it was 1851 ... ,” Roxana Robinson explains, in her epistle to Harriet Beecher Stowe). A historically didactic form, the open letter lends itself to sermonizing (“You must have a brutal clarity about the river of tears that brought us here, to you,” Achy Obejas insists); like any private correspondence, it can verge on solipsistic. In either case, it calls attention to the silence of the letter’s addressee.
The risk of writing oneself into an echo chamber haunts Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. In a letter to his late Uncle Jimmy that doubles as a message to that other Jimmy (Baldwin, whom he cites), Laymon acknowledges the problem with writing about and to people without listening to them. Though his uncle “inspired thousands of paragraphs, hundreds of scenes,” Laymon never shared his writing with him. “I was afraid to know for sure that you thought my work was a hustle ... But more than that, I didn’t want you to know that I wanted you to be better at being human.” A letter exchange between black male writers at the center of Laymon’s book adopts a more dynamic call-and-response format. As Mychal Denzel Smith, Darnell Moore, Kai M. Green, Marlon Peterson, and Laymon confess to wounds, regrets, and new freedoms, they commit themselves to their own lives—to what Moore calls the “radical act” of black survival.
The language of survival runs throughout Radical Hope as well. Several writers imagine a future beyond the election of Donald Trump—none more dramatically than Christina García, who writes to her imagined great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter. But if these letters express a belief in and responsibility to future recipients, they also anticipate the authors’ own death or obsolescence—a time when the letter will be all that remains. This idea is painfully rendered in Peterson’s 2014 “Open Letter to the Media If/When I Am Gunned Down By the Police or a Random White Person” (“I was scared when you stopped me ... I did not feel like I had to tell you where I lived”). But it marks other letter-essays as well. So while the form can create networks of support across time and space, it can also reflect deep anxieties about premature death in the face of police and vigilante violence.
Coates’s Between the World and Me is a letter to his son Samori that’s occasioned by death (“I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes”) and shaped by a sense of impending absence (“In the little time we have left together,” he wants to help Samori become “a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world”). Their time together is short because Samori is 15 and plans to attend college. But Coates depicts their separation as one might describe the twilight of life, because soon he won’t be able to save his son from the police, “from their flashlights, their hands, their nightsticks, their guns.” Of course Coates himself is also vulnerable; the letter might be all that survives him. But the greater fear, which drives the work, is that his son might not live to receive it.