Lisa McNair was born in 1964, one year after her older sister, Denise, was murdered in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Dear Denise is a collection of forty letters from Lisa addressed to the sister she never knew, but in whose shadow of sacrifice and lost youth she was raised. These letters offer an intimate look into the life of a family touched by one of the most heinous tragedies of the Civil Rights Movement.
Written in a genuine, accessible, familiar, and easy-to-read voice, Lisa’s letters apprise her late sister of all that has come to pass in the years since her death. Lisa considers her own challenges and accomplishments as a student in remarkably different—and very racially complex—schools; the birth of their baby sister, Kim; their father’s election to the Alabama legislature; her evolving sense of faith and place, and sometimes lack thereof, within the Black church; her college experiences; and her own sense of self as she’s matured into adulthood. She reveals some of the family’s difficulties and health challenges, and shares some of their joys and celebrations.
The letters are accompanied by 29 black-and-white photographs, most of them from the McNair family collection, many of them taken by her father, a professional photographer who documented the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama both before and after Denise’s murder. An unswervingly candid, gentle, and nuanced book, Dear Denise is a testament to one singular life lived bravely and truthfully (if sometimes confusedly or awkwardly), during decades of bewildering social change and in the shadow of one life never fully lived.