By Anonymous (not verified) on December 23, 2012

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 pmproj@progressive.org.

You can read more pieces from The Progressive Media Project by clicking here.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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