Inspired by James Baldwin’s, “A Letter To My Nephew.”

Dear Sinclair,

About 60 years ago, one of my favorite writers wrote a letter to his nephew, with whom he shares the same name, James Baldwin. This piece was published on the 100th anniversary of Juneteenth. A celebration our ancestors created to commemorate their exit from American Slavery.

The thing is, it took Baldwin five tries to finish it.

And little niece, as I type on my iMac, I must confess this draft began when you were half your age. So I’m facing this dilemma not because I don’t know what to say, but because I don’t know what I should say.

For Baldwin, it was difficult to logically explain to young James why he would face certain obstacles because of his skin color. But you see, Baldwin didn’t focus the letter solely on American racism. He instead expounded on the fact that his nephew possessed the choice on “how to handle” it.

Baldwin explained, “It will be hard, but you come from sturdy peasant stock, men who picked cotton, dammed rivers, built railroads, and in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity.” He continued, “You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, “The very time I thought I was lost, my dungeon shook and my chains fell off.”

As Baldwin was transparent with the harsh reality awaiting his brother’s son, he simultaneously suggested methods on how to call reality on its bluff. So, this letter cannot be a guide on how to avoid unjust challenges. Instead, this prose, Sinclair, is going to teach you how to win.

Before I can get into that, I need to explain our American Race Problem. It’s a complicated issue, and it’s very, very old. And even though it’s a hundred times your age, it’s an unfortunate matter that’ll meet your acquaintance.

This is where I could bring in George Floyd. A name you’re not familiar with yet, but a man you’ve undoubtedly seen many times on TV. Hopefully, I can explain that incident before you discover it on YouTube. But for right now, I’m going to bring in someone you already know. He’s the man you call “paw-pah” and the man I call Dad. And when I was twice your age, grandpa retold me a story I’ll never forget.

The year was 1959, before Lyndon B. Johnson signed a bill called the Civil Rights Act. Your grandfather was eight years old, living in Alabama, under a racial mandate called Jim Crow.

To put it poignantly, Sinclair, Jim Crow treated White people as Americans while handling Black people like inferiors. You will learn more about this in school, but because these laws were overtly prejudiced, bigoted behaviors were unabashedly standardized.

This brings me back to grandpa’s story. The day he almost died.

It was a summer day in Birmingham. Your grandpa, and his father, and his brothers were fishing at a local lake. As your great-grandfather put bait on their hooks — your grandpa ventured in the park alone. As he collected muddy rocks and broken branches around the lake — he lost his footing and slipped under the murky waters.

“It was just like in the movies,” he told me. “You’re thinking about your life as you’re fighting for it.” He went down, then back up, and plummeted under again, crying out as he fought the surface. His brothers and father could not hear him, but there was a group of men that did. “They were leaning against their truck,” grandpa said, “And I couldn’t believe it. They were laughing at me.” And even though your grandpa heard their cackles, he still called for them. “Help me, please!”

They did not come to his aid. One of them even yelled back, “Look at that nigger drowning!” But, luckily, your great uncle found pah-paw in time. And Sinclair, that’s how the story ends.

The white men did not go to jail or get handled by a superhero. And no, his brother’s love did not conquer or kill racism. And, I’m not being frank to scare you. I’m not even sharing this story to warn you. Instead, I’m trying to sober you to racism, because it’s something that will never die. It’s affected every Black life in your family. And eventually, it will make its rounds to you. But here’s the thing, Sinclair, as Baldwin told young James, we’ve overcome the “most terrifying odds.” Because over time, this racial paradigm has figured out it’s no match to persistence. But Sinclair, this persistence is not an inheritance. It’s a choice.

Unlike your ancestors, you were born with the alienable right to choose. And your choice is your freedom. And your freedom is your responsibility. And at times, your responsibility will overwhelm you. And because it can be overwhelming, parts of society will champion you to opt-out. But the trick here is, “opting-out” will not be considered the same as “surrendering.” Instead, society will exalt surrendering as “agency.” But the catch is, this “agency” requires you to give up your choice. And after you do, you’ll be enlisted into a narrative.

And these narratives will subliminally convince you, because of your skin color, or because you’re American, or because you’re a woman, or because “you should only consider the facts” —that you must sacrifice your “self” to authenticate your “new identity.”

Now, this isn’t to say, for example, the mainstream narrative on racism is lying about the existence of racism. No. It’s to say the opposite. Racism is real, but it’s not the only hardship you’ll face. You will battle against harsh betrayal, romantic heartbreaks, family deaths, rock-bottoms, illnesses, job losses, possible addictions, and much more. As Baldwin explained, “Life will be hard.” And at times, you will suffer. But the only thing you can do is utilize your choice on how you react when the trials come.

But as you’ve experienced at just four years old, life is full of love. And as you mature, you’ll see that life is full of opportunities. It’s full of chances. It’s full of beauty. It’s full of possibilities. Life is full of good. And oftentimes, the joyous moments are fulfilling because of the grueling adversities. And no, I do not wish tribulations on your life to appreciate your successes. But I have to say, I will not pray them out of your experience, either. My hope, Sinclair, is that you build such an audacity, (hopefully rooted in God), that when they do come, you’re ready.

I hope as you learn about the ugliness in our history, you don’t turn bitter against this country. That instead, you gain a sense of pride and optimism because [we’ve] achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity.” And like your freed ancestors, take ownership of your mind, of your life, and of your self.

Finally, as Baldwin concluded to his nephew, I shall do the same, “Take no one’s word for anything, including mine, but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.”

Love you always,

Auntie Brittany

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