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Please forward this error screen to sharedip-148722167. James Baldwin’s thoughts on his nephew’s future—in a country with a terrible history of racism— first appeared in The Progressive magazine in 1962. Over 50 years later his words are, sadly, more relevant than ever. I have begun this letter five times and torn it up five times.
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. Other people cannot see what I see whenever I look into your father’s face, for behind your father’s face as it is today are all those other faces which were his. Let him laugh and I see a cellar your father does not remember and a house he does not remember and I hear in his present laughter his laughter as a child.
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. They have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. Now, my dear namesake, these innocent and well meaning people, your countrymen, have caused you to be born under conditions not far removed from those described for us by Charles Dickens in the London of more than a hundred years ago. I hear the chorus of the innocents screaming, «No, this is not true. How bitter you are,» but I am writing this letter to you to try to tell you something about how to handle them, for most of them do not yet really know that you exist. Here you were to be loved. To be loved, baby, hard at once and forever to strengthen you against the loveless world.
This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that for the heart of the matter is here and the crux of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits to your ambition were thus expected to be settled. I know your countrymen do not agree with me here and I hear them. They do not know Harlem and I do. Take no one’s word for anything, including mine, but trust your experience.