James Baldwin’s “A Letter to My Nephew” is a masterclass in authorship. You’re saying duh and getting ready to roast me. Tell us about that theory of relativity, Einstein. For my part, I’ve built an enormous collection of books for the express purpose of having sharper prose, and I don’t know if the books are helping. I want prose which demonstrates how a given issue can actually be a tangle of issues—an invitation to how messy reality is—but also demonstrates a certain precision. If I write well, do I help my readers see more?
Baldwin opens his letter by getting his readers to see nothing less than the full weight of familial love. I can’t say what exactly I’ve learned by trying to love my family or expand love to people I consider family; I suspect most of us can’t. Baldwin manages precision of a sort by pointing to the source of his pain:
I keep seeing your face, which is also the face of your father and my brother. I have known both of you all your lives and have carried your daddy in my arms and on my shoulders, kissed him and spanked him and watched him learn to walk. I don’t know if you have known anybody from that far back, if you have loved anybody that long, first as an infant, then as a child, then as a man. You gain a strange perspective on time and human pain and effort.
Baldwin speaks not only of loving someone over decades, but watching them change completely more than once during that time. “You gain a strange perspective on time and human pain and effort.” Our cliches about love look like platitudes about loyalty in the face of his statement. We all know parents who won’t take serious effort to appreciate their children, let alone their adult children. They’ll only see their baby, if they see anyone. To try to love someone as an infant, a child, and then as a man is, I imagine, to understand and accept that your love changes. It has to. They changed and became someone in whom you both hoped and also could never have conceived at all.
Baldwin’s depth of insight is only matched by the depth of his pain. The anger that his brother has been left for dead by an entire country animates every word of his essay:
I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it and I know, which is much worse, and 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. One can be–indeed, one must strive to become–tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of war; remember, I said most of mankind, but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.
Musing on what love of a brother has meant to his life transforms into righteous anger. “It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” It’s hard, I suspect, for most of us to square love with a rejection of innocence. This isn’t just because of a romanticized notion of love where we imagine the object of love to be vulnerable or guiltless, impossibly beautiful in ways meant to accentuate their physical beauty or our status. It’s because we believe love has to have some notion of innocence at its core, that what is most worth loving could not possibly be guilty of anything. If we’re all guilty, and we want to be morally serious, and we want to love—well, that gets complicated. It breaks down any number of childish assumptions about how the world works—assumptions, we note, in oversupply among the most privileged—and pushes us to see what we’ve done and are doing wrong. That, as Baldwin notes, is the most frightening thing to some, as it punctures how they’ve seen themselves since childhood:
...the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.
He makes a point many others have made before, that whiteness is a social construct dependent on an Other. It must demonize that Other while promoting itself as a fount of goodness. But Baldwin obviously doesn’t only make this point. He shows that a reality for many, one that has persisted for generations, is of a magnitude analogous to a cosmic order. He does not hesitate to connect reality with identity, and his address to his nephew is a plea for the nephew to develop his own identity, over against those who made and enforced segregation:
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 not expected to aspire to excellence. You were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do and how you could do it, where you could live and whom you could marry.
It may be true that there are some rich kids who have been told they can do no wrong because some institutions were obsessed with teaching self-esteem. I don’t really buy this as a general explanation for insolence, though. I’ve seen far too much bullying, far too many attempts to call others “worthless.” And when I’ve run into people who considered themselves untouchable, what I found was their families had made it an article of faith they were entitled, and if schools and churches and clubs reinforced that notion, it was because of the power of their social class. This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to be disadvantaged and spoiled. But there’s a real need to be able to distinguish monsters who would destroy everything for the sake of their ego from those who aren’t respectful of their own potential.
For many, finding an identity—yes, that cliche of “finding your voice”—isn’t just vital to their well-being. It might be the central democratic task, the only thing promising a redemptive future. To see yourself as you are is to see your beauty and your ugliness, to make hard decisions about how you will accept your judgment and use norms to better yourself and better humanity:
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.
Because the United States of America has an utterly deranged idea of freedom, there’s a non-zero chance a non-zero number of people will see these words, see “with love shall force,” and immediately judge this communist propaganda. But Baldwin is so much greater. Any sense of justice comes from a willingness to accept the norms which bind us together. Men of great wisdom respect this while understanding that conformity can be very dangerous. The solution is not “non-conformity.” The solution is to understand moral wisdom means taking a hard look at who you are and what you stand for. The solution is openness to self-knowledge, an understanding that being a genuine individual begins with respect for others. American individualism too often is nothing but unchecked privilege and unfounded myths. It’s a false sense of confidence which reduces others to props in a childish story. Against this, knowing what’s right because of the concrete knowledge of what’s wrong is the only acceptable redemption.