James Baldwin is a renowned African American writer whose work covers mostly racial issues in the U.S. The author develops subjective literary pieces based on his life as a Black person in Harlem, NY, between the 1930s and 1940s. Baldwin’s work depicts the lives of African Americans and their place in American society. In 1962, Baldwin penned a letter to his then-teenaged nephew concerning his forthcoming in America and what he should expect to encounter in his adult life. Accordingly, Baldwin’s letter centers on the subject of “innocence” in society, where he uses this word to imply white people’s inability to recognize injustice and take responsibility. Furthermore, the work of Baldwin encompasses most of the contemporary racial issues that black people still encounters in the country. Some of the current prejudices include police brutality, mass shootings and subjecting the people of color to lower social class in the community. These aspects are common today and black individuals are dealing with the challenges most frequently in the country. Therefore, the letter directly relate to issues that are affecting the wellbeing of African Americans.
A Letter to My Nephew by James Baldwin
James Baldwin is an outstanding African American writer whose literary work majors mostly on racism and racial injustices experienced by black Americans. Baldwin grew up in Harlem, NY and encountered immeasurable racism during his life. As a writer, he chooses to establish subjective pieces meant to motivate the blacks to persevere by maintaining a positive mentality. In 1962, Baldwin wrote a letter to his then-teenaged nephew concerning his future in America and what he should expect to encounter in his adult life. James addresses a common subject of racism but is uniquely compared to many other writers. Instead of being bitter towards the whites and advising his nephew to exhibit hostility, the author remains friendly to the oppressors while seeking the addressed to pity the racial tyrants. The writer believes that white Americans promote systemic racism not because they want to but due to insecurity and lack of self-confidence. In his letter, Baldwin focuses on the subject of “innocence” in society, utilizing this word to imply not naivety but the incapacity to identify injustice and take accountability.
Baldwin uses the word “innocence” throughout his letter in connection to society as perceived by white Americans. For example, the author tells his nephew that “this innocent country set you down in a ghetto where it intended that you should perish” (Baldwin, 1962, n. p.). The writer’s statement reiterates that Caucasians in the U.S. promote racial injustices without knowing that what they do hurts others (Stoute, 2019). Similarly, Baldwin (1962, n.p) maintains that “your countrymen were not there and haven’t made it yet,” reiterating whites’ ignorance. Nonetheless, the insensitivity of the whites exposes many blacks to critical obstacles that disrupt their lives since birth. Baldwin informs his nephew that whatever he faces in life due to racism is significantly odd. The writer notes that “these innocent and well-meaning people … have caused you to be born under conditions not far removed from those described for us by Charles Dickens” (Baldwin, 1962, n. p.). Additionally, the author declares that “I know your countrymen do not agree with me here, and I hear them saying, ‘You exaggerate’” (Baldwin, 1962, n.p). Subsequently, racism would not be an issue in the U.S. but for white people’s ignorance.
Society’s refusal to admit the tenacious problem of racism in the U.S. strengthens the innocence idea. According to Baldwin (1962, n. p.), “they have destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.” Baldwin feels sorry that many whites in the U.S. ignore the plights of black people (NMAAHC, 2017). Baldwin (1962, n.p) argues that “your grandmother was there, and no one has ever accused her of being bitter,” implying whites’ mentality. However, the author states that “I suggest that the innocent check with her” (Baldwin, 1962, n.p), indicating white people’s need to appreciate current situation. Baldwin (1962, n. p.) says “it is the innocence which constitutes the crime,” referring to the whites’ ignorance and maintenance of innocence as a major hurdle in realizing reel ethnic freedom nationally. The writer associates blacks’ purported bitterness to whites’ mischievous tactic to maintain innocence. The author writes, “I hear the chorus of the innocents screaming, ‘No, this is not true. How bitter you are” (Baldwin, 1962, n. p.). Therefore, whites accuse blacks of bitterness and culpability to maintain guiltlessness.
While white people enjoy the innocence privilege, Black persons are presumed guilt-ridden from birth. Baldwin (1962, n. p.) tells his nephew that “you were born where you were born and faced the future because you were black.” This account explains the segregation of African Americans in poor-conditioned neighborhoods where they face difficulties from childhood to adulthood. The author tells his nephew and namesake that the plights he faces in life connect to his skin color, which implies his black race. Consequently, Baldwin blames systemic racism that proceeds due to whites’ maintenance of innocence for the African Americans’ sufferings. To reinstate the connection between race and life opportunities in the U.S., the writer tells young James that “you were born into a society which spelled out … that you were a worthless human being” (Baldwin, 1962, n. p.). Similarly, Baldwin (1962, n. p.) notes that “you were expected to make peace with mediocrity,” meaning that the American race-based culture never expects blacks to strive for better social places. Equally, the argument purports that excellence is a trait of the innocent whites, while blacks merit sufferings.
One should approach the division between blamelessness and guilt from the place of acceptance to survive and succeed in the U.S. Baldwin (1962, n. p.) tells his younger relative that “if you know whence you came, there is no limit to where you can go.” Accordingly, the author advises his nephew that “you must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope” (Baldwin, 1962, n.p). The uncle wants his nephew to develop determination and focus to succeed by telling him that “in this case, the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity” (Baldwin, 1962, n.p). The author says that “there is no reason for you to try to become like white men” (Baldwin, 1962, n. p.), whose denial of the past makes them weak and inhumane. Furthermore, Baldwin says that “there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you” (Baldwin, 1962, n. p.). Therefore, the author wants his nephew to express condition-less love towards white people to live in peace and realize his potential.
The aspect of racism has persisted in the country and a number of black Americans have suffered severely from the prejudice that has led to the death of innocent people following excessive use of police force. The U.S. system has cultivated a culture that portrays white Americans as innocent individuals in most cases while their counterparts black Americans are presumed to be ever guilty. The statement “those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality” (Baldwin, 1962, n.p) implies the injustices that people of color have faced. Currently, in the U.S., the rate by which African Americans are convicted and sentenced to prison is much higher than that of white people. The judicial system and the law enforcement body are targeting blacks because they are associated with criminal activities. The practice makes most of the group be arrested even without genuine reason. Some unfortunate ones find themselves before prosecutors and due to the inability to pay bail, they serve their sentences in prison. Their skin color betrays them hence they become offenders for offenses they never committed.
In the recent past, a number of police killings have been reported and witnessed across the country. Most of the victims are black people and the offenders are white individuals. People around the world have condemned the vices since they indicate the highest level of racial discrimination. The need to show love and togetherness for the African Americans prompted the initiation of the ‘Black Lives Matter Movement.’ In relation to the letter Baldwin to his nephew, he stated that they were trembling following the hard situations in the country as a result of racism. However, the love they had for one another made them survive the black days. “We have not stopped trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other, none of us would have survived” (Baldwin, 1962, n.p). This statement reflects the nature of prejudice black people encounters and how terrifying the condition is. The #Black Lives Matter is used as a framework dedicated to fighting the growing anti-Black violence in the country. The ideology is intended to create an aspect of love that is needed to enable the people of color to overcome the racial issues.
The Black Lives Matter Movement signifies to the white people that Africans are humans and they do not deserve to be mistreated. The social drive highlights the community about the various components of violence motivated by racial prejudice in society. The phrase enables African Americans to express their concerns on issues of inequality and police brutality in the country. The approach is to make the white people including law enforcement officers value the lives of African Americans. “For most of them do not yet really know that you exist” (Baldwin, 1962, n.p), the statement in the letter suggests that the ill motives towards black people are because their existence is undermined.
Being a black American is becoming a tragedy to most people of color in the U.S. in the recent past, a number of cases involving the mass shooting of civilians have been reported in the country. Based on the police findings, the majority of the killings are conducted in neighborhoods where black people live. According to the statement “You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason” (Baldwin, 1962, n.p). This argument indicates the correlation between skin color and the act of killing African Americans. The killers who are mostly white Americans target places popular with African Americans to execute their evil deeds. For instance, the shooting at the grocery store in Buffalo New York left 13 people dead. Among the deceased, 10 were black Americans and two were white people (Oxford Analytica, 2022). Following the police investigation, the act is linked to racial motives that prompted the offender to travel a long distance to commit the crime. Some evidence showed that the accused posted a racist manifesto on social media before proceeding with the ill-mission.
The incident at Buffalo relates to the message the author communicated through the letter to his nephew. “They have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it” (Baldwin, 1962, n.p). The mass shooting left many people lifeless, their families and relatives in deep sorrow and agony. The fear and hatred white people have against the black population is overwhelming and the rate at which hate crime is surging in the country is alarming. “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,” indicates the perspective of white individuals towards African Americans. Most of the acts of discrimination are encouraged by the belief that the black population has no effective rights as white persons.
African Americans are exposed to living in remote places in the country. Most of them are not allowed to attend some of the best schools in the U.S. I said it was intended that you should perish, in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go beyond and behind the white man’s definition,” (Baldwin, 1962, n.p). The approach is aimed at depriving the black population of improving their living standards hence they remain in their poor economic status. Being African Americans, the white people expected them not to be able to access good education that can change their lives.
In “A Letter to My Nephew,” Baldwin offers the notion of white “innocence” as an incapacity to acknowledge the systemic racism in America. The author uses this term to connect white Americans’ refusal to accept racism as an actual society-wide issue to ignorance. Subsequently, the writer implies that racism in the U.S. proceeds not because of the forceful implementation of beliefs concerning the matter. Instead, the social problem continues due to white people’s entrenched and antique view that never ceased with the elimination of slavery. Baldwin stresses that Caucasians cannot comprehend African Americans’ plights since they do not experience the same. The writer’s explanation of white individuals’ myopic worldview provides a tactic for managing ignorance. Subsequently, Baldwin’s letter, though written very early, describes the real situation in the U.S. today. Racism remains a real social problem, with minorities often erring by starting physical fights for freedom and equity. However, Baldwin’s message should serve as a guiding principle for African Americans. Instead of fighting, the minorities should embrace love and understand whites as people who suffer identity and insecurity issues.
Baldwin, J. (1962). A letter to my nephew. The Progressive Magazine.
National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). (2017). An introduction to James Baldwin.
Oxford Analytica. (2022). Mass US shooting in Buffalo highlights familiar issues. Emerald Expert Briefings, (oxan-es).
Stoute, B. J. (2019). Racial socialization and thwarted mentalization: Psychoanalytic reflections from the lived experience of James Baldwin’s America. American Imago, 76(3), 335-357.