Fifty years ago this month, the black gay novelist James Baldwin penned his powerful essay “A Letter to My Nephew.”
In it, he wrote: “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.”
First published in The Progressive magazine and then reprinted in his book of essays “The Fire Next Time,” Baldwin’s letter outlined what he called “the crux” of his dispute with America.
Born in Harlem, he remained one of America’s most renowned social commentators throughout the 1960s and early ’70s. Baldwin was an acquaintance of Maya Angelou and Malcolm X, marched with Martin Luther King and argued with Robert Kennedy.
In a heated debate in 1961, Baldwin was asked what he thought about the possibility of a black American president. His answer to the question has been cited repeatedly since 2008, evidence of how his insight made him an American prophet. Baldwin expressed no doubt there someday would be a black American president, but that wasn’t what worried him. He said, “What I am really curious about is just what kind of country he will be president of.”
In the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, that question hangs heavily in the air today.
And when we look at income inequality, the question also hangs heavily.
And when we look at incarceration rates, especially for people of color.
And when we look at the new attacks on women’s reproductive rights.
And when we look at the power of Wall Street and the oil, gas and coal companies.
And when we see how much money we squander on the Pentagon and war-making, while more than 20 percent of our nation’s children live in poverty.
We have to wonder what kind of country Barack Obama is president of.
Nor has the racism that Baldwin fought his whole life evaporated, as evidenced by the nasty rhetoric questioning the president’s citizenship or intelligence.
James Baldwin would be surprised and impressed, though, about the progress we’ve made on gay rights and same-sex marriage, among many other issues.
He understood that a battle was on for the soul of this country.
In “A Letter to My Nephew,” he wrote that America was “celebrating 100 years of freedom 100 years too soon.”
But he also wrote, in that same essay, “We can make America what America must become.”
That remains our task today.
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and social critic living in Santa Fe, N.M. The Progressive Media Project is affiliated with The Progressive magazine, in which the Baldwin letter was first published. Wellington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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