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Black History Month, day 23
Who am I kidding. This letter is for everyone: for those who were meant to perish and for those whose innocence is indicted here because it is the “innocence” of those who do not wish to see.
My father and my sweetie both spoke this week of the importance of James Baldwin to them, naming him when I asked people for their favorite African American writers. Now I’ve gotten to a passage in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow quoting from The Fire Next Time, a book I haven’t read since American Lit, in 11th grade. Baldwin is writing to his nephew.
This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it . . . . It is their innocence which constitutes the crime . . . . This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you that you should perish. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being, You were expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity . . . . You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention; and, by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp on reality. But these men are your brothers –your lost younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what it must become. It will be hard, but you come from sturdy peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off . . . . We cannot be free until they are free. God bless you and, Godspeed. (The Fire Next Time, 5-10)
He wrote that fifty years ago. It’s a drop in the ocean of anti-African bigotry going back before the transatlantic slave trade, but fifty years still seems like a long time to keep our eyes on the prize. A long time to hold on.