Tamara Winfrey Harris, DEAR BLACK GIRL

Tamara Winfrey Harris, DEAR BLACK GIRL

Tamara Winfrey Harris joins Zibby to discuss her new book of heartwarming letters from Black women to help guide, protect, and inspire the next generation of young Black girls. The writers of the letters in Dear Black Girl range from celebrities like Brandy and former columnist Rochelle Riley to other women who simply responded to the request for letters, all of whom offer incredible advice and promote the universal practice of self-love.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Tamara. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Dear Black Girl: Letters from Your Sisters on Stepping Into Your Power.

Tamara Winfrey Harris: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, it’s my pleasure. First of all, this was a brilliant concept to do as a book from the start. I know you did it because you solicited letters from black women to black girls and got so many that you made it into a book. Tell me about that process and how this became what I’m holding in my hands and the whole inspiration for even getting the letters to begin with.

Tamara: You are absolutely right. I was doing an intergenerational workshop with two friends. I just offhandedly thought, wouldn’t it be great if the twelve girls who are part of this got to walk away with a letter from a black woman? I offhandedly went on Facebook and said, “Hey, can anybody write me a letter and send me a letter?” Oh, my gosh, did women show up. I got more than fifty letters from around the world. They were so beautiful. Someone sent me a stack of journals to give the girls along with it. They were written on stationary. They had sparkly things. It was just so beautiful. I felt like this needed to be a movement and not just a moment. I knew that girls were going to benefit from it, but I kind of felt like women wanted — there’s a cathartic part for women.

Zibby: You could see that in their letters, everything from the woman whose grandfather surprised her with a car in the front yard to the MIT woman or whatever who’s this brilliant woman and the sexual abuse stuff. It spanned so many life moments and advice. It was like peeking into the souls of so many women.

Tamara: I was surprised. The whole idea behind it was that I hoped I could model the way I think is most useful for us to relate to our daughters and nieces. That’s with vulnerability and love. Very often, we do this. It’s the scolding, don’t do this, instead of saying, here’s what happened to me. Here’s why I know this. Here’s why I would like you to do this because here’s my experience.

Zibby: Even that you pointed out in the beginning, which I thought was so interesting, that some of the tough times that black girls will get were actually from the women themselves. You have to caution those women from sort of taking out what’s happened to them and passing it along. Tell me about that.

Tamara: We absorb, we know this, all women, but black women particularly because they have this double oppression. You hear people say things about women. You hear people say if you wear certain clothes, you’re asking for it. You hear people say that women are weaker than other people. Black girls hear people saying that they’re too loud or too aggressive. That stuff works its way into your spirit. It’s something that we as women have to work to undo. It isn’t surprising that sometimes when we’re relating to other women and young girls, some of that comes out. We find ourselves repeating some of that negative language. It’s an ongoing battle for us to make sure that we’re not letting that stuff out and we’re instead speaking to girls with love. One of the things I say in the book is that we can’t afford to look at each other with the same kind of skewed eyes that society will look at us.

Zibby: Beautiful. You could’ve just put the letters in here. It could’ve just been letters, but you peppered it with definitions and history and all sorts of other things even down to how this cover came to be and the importance of black artists and fostering young talent and all of that. Tell me a little bit about how you formatted it and how you even picked for all of your “Know This” passages, how you picked what we should know. PS, as I was reading it — my husband is stepdad to my kids. I was like, “Hey, in this book, they call it a bonus dad instead of a stepdad.” He’s like, “Ooh, I like that so much more.”

Tamara: I’m a bonus mom. I love that language. I gave into the nerdy little Tammy in me. I was a nerdy little kid. There’s so much in this world to learn. Some of the women who are super smart mentioned people, Pauli Murry and Marsha P. Johnson, and women that girls may not know yet at fifteen. I wanted to give them a window to dig further into that stuff. I always wanted to challenge them to write a letter to themselves because I think self-reflection is really important. Last year, I got my 200-hour yoga certification, so I was all about the self-reflection. That’s important. There is some tough stuff in the book. I wanted girls, if they read about mental health and recognize that they’re struggling, I want them to know where to call if they need more information about something. If they need to know more about sexual assault and they don’t have anyone to talk to, I wanted them to have some resources.

Zibby: The introduction you wrote to this book was so powerful, reliving history and pointing out all the things like people thought that black women were tougher, and so they put us in the — the way you told it, it was so powerful. Just bravo on rewriting history from the way it should be told, really. This is an empathic, completely accurate description of all the ways that people made these faulty assumptions and ended up subjugating an entire group of people. It’s horrific. I just loved how you did it.

Tamara: Thank you. Thank you so much. I worried about that part. I thought of myself being fifteen and going, ugh, not history, not page of history. I hope I did it well in a way that girls will go — when they see some negative meme on Instagram or something, they’ll go, oh, I know where that comes from. That’s not about me. That’s about something else.

Zibby: You’re so funny. You’re like, I’m going to talk about history. Listen up. This is important. I love that. There are all these great letters. I thought maybe I could just read a couple passages that I loved. One is from Celeste. It’s, “Dear one, where is your light? What is the one shining thing that makes you yourself? Is it the way you walk? The way you talk? Is it the way your lip curls when you smile? Do you have a mole on your cheekbone?” Then she goes down and says, “I ask these things because I urge you to know. Know your light. Know where it resides. That is the key to everything. The dictionary defines light as the natural agent that stimulates sight and makes things visible. When you begin to see your own light, that special thing that makes you like no other, guard it. Do not let anyone steal or dim your light. There are times when you won’t feel so special and your light won’t feel so bright. There are times when you don’t want to shine and you will pray that no one notices you. You just want to fade into the beige background and hide your light from everyone so they won’t see you. I know this because I have felt those things too.” Then of course, she keeps going. At the end she says, “Your light is your superpower. Hold it high for all to behold. Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine. With love, your sister in light, Celeste.” That’s so amazing.

Tamara: Some of these women are so poetic. I love it.

Zibby: Right? They’re amazing. Who are all these women? They just literally sent them in randomly? Did you get to know some of these women? You should have a party for them. I feel like they need a celebration.

Tamara: I was thinking about that. Some of them were random letters that came in. Once I decided to make a book and that I wanted to cover several topics that were important, I had to solicit some of those letters. It was important that I had a trans woman in and I had an executive in and a biracial woman in. Some of them people might recognize as writers who are awesome, who has this award-winning book out now, Rochelle Riley who’s a columnist. Some are just everyday women that you’ve not heard of. Some are educators. Some are psychologists. They’re women who just wanted to share something with the girls.

Zibby: It’s so nice. Can I read another one about the body image piece of it which I thought was great? This is from Erica who says, “People will tell you that being active is about looking great or it’s about losing weight, but I want to suggest that you already look good now regardless of whatever size you are. I want you to know that it’s okay to love your body as it is in this moment, and I want you to know that there are more reasons to love your body beyond how appealing it is to others. If you are finally able to get even halfway up that rock-climbing wall and you break down into tears because it’s so hard but you really made it halfway and it feels that much more possible now, that’s a reason to love your body. It got you somewhere it couldn’t before.” That’s amazing. These messages are so universally awesome, by the way. Just messages from women, I love this whole idea of women sharing knowledge. I have a girlfriend who — is it every five years? She has all her friends send letters to her daughter. What is it like to be ten? What is it like to be fifteen? What is it like to be five? It’s so nice. Every five years, I’m writing this girl. She’s not even a close, close friend. I doubt her daughter even remembers who I am at this point. Anytime she asks, I’m like, I’m in. Let me write. Let me help.

Tamara: When you’re the letter writer and I think also the person on the other end, there’s just something especially now that’s particularly caring about writing a letter, especially when so much of our communication is, I’m texting. I’m going to answer you “K.” We don’t even type in full sentences. To sit down and actually be thoughtful about the paper and thoughtful about what you say and find a stamp, there’s some extra care in it that I think is really neat.

Zibby: It’s so true. I know. I love how you were like, do you know what a letter is? You put in an envelope.

Tamara: Gather around, children. Let me tell you about the time before.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. My son’s kindergarten just did a whole unit on the postal service. They had to write letters to people. He was so excited. He’s like, “I’m mailing a letter!” He got to put his list together of who he would send it to. Then of course, they came. He wrote one to his sister. Then she got the letter. It was the cutest. “I got a letter from him!” It was something so special. It is such a lost art, this whole epistolary tradition that I feel like is falling by the wayside.

Tamara: I do not get that excited when I get an email.

Zibby: No. I never save emails. Every so often, I’m like, I’m going to slide it into this folder because this one, I’m going to save. Then of course, where did those even go? Sometimes I’m like, I’ll print it out. Then I’m like, where do I put the printout? I need a folder. Where do I put the folder? I don’t know. There’s no good way.

Tamara: I think you got at something. There is a universality. It was important to me that I centered the experiences of black girls and women because they don’t get centered a lot when we talk about womanhood and girlhood. I also think that a lot of the wisdom that women shared is good for any girl, any boy, any woman. The letter that starts, “You are magic, light and stars in the universe,” I wake up and read that. I’m like, I am. I am magic. That’s a message everyone deserves.

Zibby: Yeah, let’s take these letters. I didn’t mean to suggest in my talking about the universality to in any way diminish the one black woman to a black girl element because that’s what really makes this book so unique and so awesome. I learned a lot of things. I’m obviously not a black woman. I’m a white woman. I was never a black girl. When I read this, it shed light for me on what that experience was like and maybe some things I hadn’t thought about. That was also really useful and helpful for me even just in hearing about some of those particular things.

Tamara: I think you were dead on. It’s both. I think there’s power in the direct black woman to black girl conversation and I think there’s universality because there are experiences that we as femmes, we just have.

Zibby: We just get it. You even have this whole section on daughtering that was from the “Dear Little Sis” piece by Brandy and how daughtering ain’t easy. She writes, “We daughter more than relationship. It’s a thing we do. We daughter.” I just love that whole thing, empowering all the daughters out there to be active in our roles. Tell me a little more about your thoughts on that.

Tamara: I loved that because I never thought of my role as a daughter as being an active thing as opposed to just what I am, and the idea that you can choose how you daughter. Then I also love how she talked about the line of women who kept trying to give their daughters what they thought their daughters needed, which was really what they needed. I thought that was so powerful, and then the breaking of the cycle where you realize that you can be your own self and give your children what they need but fill your own hole. You’re going to be different. I loved that.

Zibby: Amazing. There are just so many more, the daughter of the engineer and crack addict to “I’m the child of two parents infected with HIV.” All these essays are just amazing. I wanted to know more, if you don’t mind my prying now, about you. You said you were a nerd growing up, which I highly doubt. Tell me about your background and how we got on this Zoom together.

Tamara: I was definitely, I promise you, a little nerdy kid who loved to — when my first book came out, my mother reminded me, she was like, “You were always in the corner talking to yourself making up books and magazines. That was your thing. You loved to read. You loved books.” I’m a native of Gary, Indiana. Grew up on Lake Michigan right outside of Chicago. I have two awesome parents that were educators — my mom is still teaching after more than fifty years — and a brother and a sister. I have just always been drawn to, since I’ve been writing, talking about race and gender and how they intersect with politics and pop culture and current events and those kind of things. I have written a lot of essays and opinion for The New York Times and The Atlantic and places like that. Writing a book has always been my ultimate holy grail goal in my life. I did that in 2015. My first book was The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America. This was also a labor of love. The first one I felt like was for me because it was for women. Now this one is for — I have three beautiful nieces, Kennedy, Kyia, and Nina. I think about them and doing it for them so that they can be — I mean, I’m pretty awesome, but so that they can be better than me in the future, which I think is what we all want for our kids and our daughters, that they be better and their path be better and easier.

Zibby: Are you their bonus mom, your nieces?

Tamara: I’m not. I’m their cool aunt. I also have a wonderful husband and two awesome bonus stepkids, Daysha and Jonathan.

Zibby: Amazing. Wow. I don’t view that as being — back to the nerdiness comment. I was also like that as a child. I don’t think that loving books and wanting to start and write books and read magazines and all that makes you nerdy. I’m just going to say that. I think that makes you awesome.

Tamara: I was using nerdy in the most awesome way possible. I even have a shirt that has it on there that I wear. I honestly have a shirt that says “Black nerds rule” or something. I love that. I embrace it.

Zibby: That is awesome. What was it like after setting that as your goal to accomplish writing a book? What did it feel like?

Tamara: Oh, my gosh, I wanted to cry. When the boxes of books show up when they send you your author copies and you rip it open and there are all these books there with your name on it, oh, my gosh, it felt like this dam of emotion breaking open. It was like, I did it. I did the thing that I always wanted to do, which is another reason for this book. I want girls to feel that. I want boys to feel that. Everyone should feel that.

Zibby: It’s so true. I was walking down the street. I live in New York City. I was walking down with my son and his buddy. We were talking about goals in life. I was like, “My whole goal in life since I’ve been a kid is to write a book.” He was like, “That’s it?” I was like, “What are your guys’ goals?” One of them’s like, “I want to be a professional tennis player.” They had these outlandish things. I was like, “I just want to write a book.” They’re like, “Okay.” Something that for me felt so important and for other people might not seem like such a big deal, maybe it’s a certain type of book lover or something, but it just feels so important to do.

Tamara: I think because it’s your thing. Whatever your thing is, whether it’s writing books or tennis or whatever, your thing feels like the big mountain and the big, important thing. Erica wrote in her letter, once you get halfway up there or to the top of the mountain and you just feel like, oh, my gosh, even to someone else, it’s like, yeah, a book. The rest of us are like, a book!

Zibby: Enough people are like “A book!” that I think we have enough people in this community. What’s coming next? Are you going to do one for boys? Just wondering.

Tamara: After I take a nap, the next thing I’m actually — I just turned in a manuscript this week for the second expanded edition of The Sisters are Alright because so much has happened to women and black women in the last six years. Oh, my gosh, there’s Kamala Harris in the White House. I did a lot more interviews. That book had interviews with a hundred women from across the country. I did more interviews, touched on some more issues that have come to the fore in the last few years, and added a chapter on power that looks at community activism and politics which has been a space where women are really rocking it over the last five to six years. Then actually, I’ve focused on girls and women because I feel like black girls and black women get a lot of people talking at us and about us instead of to us, which is why I focused there. I think black men and boys get that too. I hope that there’s a black man writer who will take up that banner. I was kind of thinking what’s intriguing me now is what happens with senior women. It’s almost like a trifecta. I talk to a lot of women in their thirties and forties. This is about girls, but what happens? Do you come into your own? Do you feel more all right when you are over sixty? How does that transition in life look like? I don’t know what to do with that. It’s just something I’ve been playing with a lot.

Zibby: I love that. I actually, years ago, maybe five years, I was really interested because my grandmother who at the time was in her late eighties or something, she never stopped worrying about her weight ever. She just passed away, sadly. Until the day she died, she would feel bad eating cake and still eat it. I did a whole survey of her old age home or whatever you call it, and my other grandmother when she was still alive. I talked to all these women about their relationship with their bodies and eating and weight. It was fascinating. I’m so glad I did it back then when they were both alive and vibrant. I learned so much. The basic takeaway is if you don’t solve your issues now, they don’t go away. It sounds so obvious, but I always thought, I can’t wait to be older so I can stop worrying about what I look like. That does not happen if you have an eating disorder especially. All those women who reported having eating disorders, they were still really conflicted about food. Even not an eating disorder, but just a preoccupation or a concern, it didn’t go away. Anyway, I love the idea of diving more into what the experience is like for older women because you’ll stop assuming that it’s any different than it is now.

Tamara: Right. I feel like older women are another forgotten book, forgotten group. Society tends to disappear women when they get over a certain age.

Zibby: Very true. I can’t wait to read that one. Sorry to have gone off about my random article from years ago. All to say I’m interested.

Tamara: That was fascinating.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Tamara: Oh, gosh. Just do it. I run into so many women who are like, oh, I wish I could, but I don’t know, I’m not that great. I haven’t done it in a long time. Just do it. Just sit down. Carve out time for yourself if you can and write. Just start there even if you never get published. Just start writing. I had lunch once with Tananarive Due. I don’t know if you know her. She’s a spec fiction writer. She said, “What if you just say you’re going to write a word every day and you make that your commitment?” You’re probably not going to sit down and just write a word. If you bother to sit down, you’re probably going to write more than one word. If all you can get out is a “the,” then you’ve done it. You’ve met your commitment. I think writing is part of — as women, we very often don’t carve out time for ourselves. We feel guilty about it. Making space for that I think can be helpful in so many ways both creatively, but also just being restorative. A few years ago, I got into doing genealogy. I found out that one of my maternal great-grandmothers wrote poetry. This is a woman who was raising ten kids on a farm in Alabama in the early twentieth century. I have this stack of all this poetry that she wrote. That’s stuck with me and carried me because if she can carve out time to do that and thought that was important, then that’s something that I’m going to carry forward for Mattie. Everybody carry that forward from Mattie and carve out your time and just write.

Zibby: That is beautiful. I feel like that’s another book for you, her poems, poems from younger — I don’t know. There’s something there. I’ll let you take it from there. That’s beautiful. That’s so inspiring. I just love thinking about women in the past at all. How did they do their writing? What did that look like for everyone? So much of that writing is lost. We’ll never know. You’re lucky that you have that. What was everybody thinking? Back to the files and folders, organization.

Tamara: Also, I know how my house is in shambles now after writing two manuscripts. Considering all the load that our mothers and grandmothers — the cooking and the cleaning and the childrearing that we do in a different way, and we have more help from husbands and things, that they found time to do the things that they loved should be an inspiration to us.

Zibby: Totally agree. I love that. Amazing. Thank you so much, Tamara. This has been so nice.

Tamara: This has been so awesome.

Zibby: Thank you. I am totally inspired by Mattie. I’m going to carry her with me today.

Tamara: Thank you.

Zibby: Have a great day. Thanks again.

Tamara: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Tamara Winfrey Harris, DEAR BLACK GIRL

Dear Black Girl by Tamara Winfrey Harris

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