“Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear.” James Baldwin
On December 1, 1962, James Baldwin published “A Letter to My Nephew” in The Progressive magazine. It was a heartfelt letter he says he didn’t get right until his sixth attempt. The message was about America’s racist past and current racism that enveloped the country and its effect on his brother, the father of Baldwin’s nephew, his namesake James. Baldwin said of his countrymen:
“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.”
In Baldwin’s letter, he seemed disheartened about the air of innocence of those white people who professed to know not what they did and absolved themselves of all they did. I wonder what he would think if he were alive today and how he would compare the present era to Harlem in 1962?
Baldwin wrote his nephew after returning to the United States from France, where he had spent much of the previous fourteen years. He was still active in the civil rights movement and was at Dr. Martin Luther King’s side in the August 28, 1963, March on Washington. Baldwin was known for his essays on race, including books like The Fire Next Time and No Name in the Street.
As you can tell from the passages quoted, Baldwin didn’t mince words when it came to addressing racism. If he were with us today, what would he think about the state of race relations in America, the protests in the street, and the government policies that further divide us? I think he’d wonder about the celebrity activists that contract with news networks to provide analysis of current events, perpetually on call to offer a Black perspective about the news of the day.
Would Baldwin be saddened to see the same battles of voter suppression, income inequality, job discrimination, and unequal education still being fought with little sign of progress over the years? Baldwin ended his message to his nephew on a note of hope. Would he still be as hopeful today?
“It will be hard, James, 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. 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.”
You know and I know that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too early. We cannot be free until they are free. God bless you, James, and Godspeed.
When James Baldwin, the uncle, wrote his letter in 1962, the struggle was intense. In February, the campus of Southern University, a Black college in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was occupied by state police trying to suppress Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized student protests. Dion Diamond, a former Howard student, Freedom Rider, and then Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Field Secretary, was arrested when meeting with students. He was charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct, vagrancy, and criminal anarchy (attempting to overthrow the State of Louisiana’s government). When SNCC leaders Chairman Chuck McDew and white Field Secretary Bob Zellner went to visit Dion in jail and bring him reading materials, they were also arrested on criminal anarchy charges.
As jail populations were segregated at that time in Louisiana, Zellner was placed with a group of fifty white prisoners who authorities let know Zellner was a “race mixer.” Zellner was beaten daily while guards looked on until SNCC lawyers forced a transfer into solitary confinement. After finally being released on bond, the criminal anarchy charges were dropped against all three after years of legal wrangling, though Dion Diamond still had to serve a sixty-day sentence for disorderly conduct.
In April, Fiskite and Freedom Rider coordinator Diane Nash withdrew her appeal related to charges of “Contributing to the Delinquency of Minors,” stemming from plans to hold Black student workshops on non-violent tactics and strategies. Even though she was pregnant at the time, she turned herself in to begin serving a two-year sentence — but not without first making a piercing statement.
“To appeal further would necessitate my sitting through another trial in a Mississippi court, and I have reached the conclusion that I can no longer cooperate with the evil and unjust court system of this state. I subscribe to the philosophy of nonviolence; this is one of the basic tenets of nonviolence — that you refuse to cooperate with evil. The only condition under which I will leave jail will be if the unjust and untrue charges against me are completely dropped.
The southern courts in which we are being tried are completely corrupt. The immorality of these courts involves several factors. They are completely lacking in integrity because we are being arrested and tried on charges that have nothing to do with the real issues. The real reason we are arrested is that we are opposing segregation, but the courts are not honest enough to state this frankly and charge us with this. Instead, they hide behind phony charges — breach of peace in Jackson, criminal anarchy in Louisiana, conspiracy to violate trespass laws in Talladega, Alabama.
But over and above the immorality of cooperating with this evil court system, there is an even larger reason why we must begin to stay in jail. If we do not do so, we lose our opportunity to reach the community and society with a great moral appeal and thus bring about a basic change in people and in society.
My child will be a Black child born in Mississippi and thus wherever he is born he will be in prison. I believe that if I go to jail now it may help hasten that day when my child and all children will be free — not only on the day of their birth but for all of their lives.” — Diane Nash
After serving nine years in the Air Force in September, James Meredith enrolled at HBCU Jackson State College in Mississippi. When he tried to transfer to the University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”), all hell broke loose. He was denied admission, and NAACP lawyers filed a federal lawsuit claiming Meredith was being denied admission because of his race. This was eight years after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court forbidding segregation. However, implementation allowed for “all deliberate speed” in the implementation by school systems. Ole Miss was ordered to admit Meredith, but not without raising the ire of those white folks James Baldwin wasn’t inclined to forgive.
There is no case in history where the Caucasian race has survived social integration. We will not drink from the cup of genocide. We must either submit to the unlawful dictates of the federal government or stand up like men and tell them never! No school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your Governor! — Governor Ross Barnett
Mississippi white councils (the Chamber of Commerce version of the Klan) whipped up hysteria, crying to preserve “racial integrity.” They shuddered at the thought of a Black male interacting as a social equal with the “flower of southern womanhood.”
James Meredith was under no illusion as to what he’d gotten himself into:
“I was engaged in a war. I considered myself engaged in a war from day one. And my objective was to force the federal government — the Kennedy administration at that time — into a position where they would have to use the United States military force to enforce my rights as a citizen.”
The struggle was deadly serious in 1962. The penalty for resistance was high, and for the most part, the revolution wasn’t being televised — or trending on Twitter, which wouldn’t exist for another forty-four years. Baldwin was part of the struggle, and he saw the abhorrent treatment of activists and the hard-earned victories large and small. What would he think of the movement today?
In 2020, those that don’t know their history for themselves are forced to accept what the media and propagandist textbooks tell you history is. The “Lost Cause” movement has replaced the actual history of enslavers who focused on maintaining the enslavement of Black people with a false narrative of would-be heroes concerned with states’ rights. There are news networks and media outlets that would tell you there’s no such thing as voter suppression or mass incarceration. Affirmative action was an unlawful invasion of white people’s rights.
Encouraged by a growing wave of white nationalism, many white people have celebrated locking Brown people in cages for attempting to immigrate to America to escape persecution in their own countries, enacting Muslim bans, classifying those from south of the border as criminals and rapists, and referring to Black people as hailing from shithole countries. The struggle is different but no less real. Black Lives Matter and other movements’ leaders are offered more protection than those in 1962 due to their visibility, social media, and twenty-four news channels keeping watch. Activist DeRay Mckesson was sued for organizing a protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, regarding the police killing of Alton Sterling in 2016. Mckesson was accused of negligence by a Baton Rouge police officer injured by a projectile thrown by an unknown third party. The US Supreme Court rejected the lawsuit but only after local and state courts allowed it to proceed.
James Baldwin might be disappointed at the lack of progress since he was in the fight. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, Baldwin returned to France, frustrated with his native country though never silenced from describing it. The creeping influence of white nationalism even into the Oval Office would likely have disturbed him, but overt racists have previously filled that office, and still, the Republic stands. I want to think he would still find hope, for as he described to his nephew, Black people have achieved much against incredible odds. We’ve seen the country’s first Black President, Barack Obama. The first Black female Vice-President will be sworn in January. Though Baldwin outlined all the things stacked against his nephew, he urged him to persevere.
Something happened at an all-time high after the death of George Floyd, when a Minneapolis policeman knelt on his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds while a video recorded his actions. Black and white people filled the streets in protest across the nation. Finally, large masses of white people acknowledged systemic racism, over-policing minority communities, and laws preventing police accountability. Some immediate changes took place in terms of banning chokeholds in some communities and review of police activities. For a moment, it looked like significant change might occur. Still, other parties and agendas at least temporarily distracted people (white people), and whether change happens soon or takes longer, it seems inevitable to some degree. The nature of change is that it occurs in fits and starts, and I believe Baldwin would find hope as he suggested once in that letter to his nephew.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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