REVIEW: I Can’t Wait to Call You My Wife by Rita Roberts
This book honors the voices of African Americans of the Civil War era through their letters, inviting readers to engage personally with the Black historical experience.
Amidst bloody battles and political maneuvering, thousands of African Americans spent the Civil War trying to hold their families together. This moving book illuminates that struggle through the letters they exchanged. Despite harsh laws against literacy and brutal practices that broke apart Black families, people found ways to write to each other against all odds. In these pages, readers will meet parents who are losing hope of ever seeing their children again and a husband who walks fifteen miles to visit his wife, enslaved on a different plantation.
The collection also includes tender courtship letters exchanged between Lewis Henry Douglass and Helen Amelia Loguen, both children of noted abolitionists, and letters sent home by the young women who traveled south to teach literacy to escaped slaves. Roberts’ expert curation allows readers to see the wider historical context. The transcriptions are accompanied by reproductions of selected original letters and photographs of the letter writers.
I’m a fan of epistolary books and this rates as a good one. Roberts has not only carefully chosen the selection of letters and arranged them in three sections (pre Civil War, during the War, and post War) but also included a degree of background information to help make events and issues clearer. There are also a number of photographs – some of the actual letter writers.
Where possible, we learn more about the background of the writers and what happened to them. Other letters are a tantalizing glimpse into discrete moments in their lives leaving us to wonder what happened next.
Before, during and after the war, much emphasis was placed on family: forming a family, maintaining it, or finding lost family members who had been sold off. After the war, free Blacks and former enslaved Blacks were also concerned with establishing Black social groups and churches as well as securing what they viewed as proof of freedom – owning a house, land, and being paid a fair wage for their labor.
The letters can be read before or without reading the historical background context sections. Be prepared for the fact that spelling and punctuation (by everyone) were rather loose and easy and much of this has been retained. The term “slave” is used not only in the letters but a few times by Roberts. The N word is also in one or two letters.
I found the letters emotional, moving, informative, and exhilarating as when a freedman (using delicious sarcasm) writes back to his former master who is trying to entice him and his family to return after the war with promises of better treatment. For fans of historical letters and those who want to better understand the humanity and determination of Blacks in the face of slavery and its long lasting legacy, I recommend reading this book. B+