In a letter to his nephew, James Baldwin successfully paints a portrait of the circumstances and constraints that he is born into as a Black child in Harlem 100 years after emancipation. He accurately depicts the injustices of the Black experience, while simultaneously offering hope to the next generation. Nearly 58 years have passed since this letter was authored, yet it remains as poignant as ever.
Though I cannot ascertain Baldwin’s precise motivations for writing this letter, one can reasonably presume that his love for his nephew motivated him to both lay out an honest account of the world as it is versus the world as it should be. When you think of the next generation, it is human nature to deeply crave for them a better, reimagined world, and Baldwin’s tone captures this spirit.
My biggest takeaway from this letter is that failure and plight is engineered, just as success is. There has never really been an American dream for Black people in America, and this was a deliberate construct since the United States was founded.
Baldwin’s prose is sharp, stunningly to the point, and pugilistic. You can see the balance Baldwin maintains, between painting a realistic portrait of the world his nephew grows up in while offering a glimmer of hope for a reimagined world.
“You were born where you were born and face the future that you face because you were black and for no other reason.” Baldwin relays a devastating truth about his nephew’s life — that by the virtue of having more pigment than his fellow countrymen, he was “expected to make peace with mediocrity.”
In the end, Baldwin’s letter to his nephew remains scorching and as relevant as ever. I do wonder what Baldwin would make of status quo America. My supposition is that Baldwin would be disappointed at the rate of progress, which would reaffirm his belief that many Americans, simply because of race, are forced to run a marathon with an anvil tied to their backs.