In 1962, American novelist and activist James Baldwin wrote an open letter to his 14-year-old nephew, also James, which was published on 1 December of that year in The Progressive magazine.
The following year, it was included – slightly altered and expanded – as one of two essays in the epistolary, The Fire Next Time, under the title “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation”.
It was lyrical, heartfelt, mesmerising, from the start:
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. Like him, you are tough, dark, vulnerable, moody – with a very definite tendency to sound truculent because you want no one to think you are soft.”
There’s not a word out of place in the advice he gives his nephew, his righteous anger against evil white racists incandescent:
“You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger. I tell you this because I love you, and please don’t you ever forget it.”
Yet, paradoxically, Baldwin later in the letter urges the young James to follow love:
“The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope.”
In recent years there have been two updates, modern takes on the Baldwin letter to his nephew.
In July 2015, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Letter to My Son” was published in The Atlantic. Addressed to the 14-year-old Samori, it also grew into a book-length essay about being black in the racist state of America.
“Here is what I would like for you to know,” Coates wrote to his son in the book, titled Between the World and Me. “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.”
What the two letters have in common, according to American academic Michael Eric Dyson, “is a forensic, analytical, cold-eyed stare down of white moral innocence”. But unlike Baldwin, Coates sees white supremacy as enduring. If white supremacy were ever eradicated, Coates told New York Magazine, he suspected it would simply be because the country had found “a new peon class”, someone else to kick around.
On Friday 10 May, the second update or interpretation of Baldwin’s letter was released. This time by another African-American artist taking stock of the United States, still a society throttled by racism and strife. But it is in a different format – a song, this time – and merely 393 words long. And this time the artist is a woman, Jamila Woods.
Woods is a singer, songwriter and poet who works as associate artistic director for non-profit organisation Young Chicago Authors. Much of her writing explores blackness, womanhood and the city of Chicago.
A celebration of heroes
Her latest album, the RnB-infused Legacy! Legacy! is a celebration of 12 of her heroes: black artists, poets, musicians and authors.
“I thought of it not so much as writing songs about these people, but thinking of the songs as self-portraits,” she told online magazine Pitchfork in a recent interview. “I was looking through the lenses of these different people, their work, things they said.”
Each song is named after a person. Some are well known, such as Eartha Kitt, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Betty Davis, Miles Davis, Frida Kahlo and Sun Ra. Others less so, for example the poets Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez.
And of course Baldwin – like the great man’s letter, Woods addresses ignorant white people from a black person’s perspective, also with a compelling opening line:
You don’t know a thing about our story, tell it wrong all the time
Don’t know a thing about our glory, wanna steal my baby’s shine
Woods engaged deeply with Baldwin’s writing. “He talks about white people,” she said in the Pitchfork interview, “and how they don’t always see us as human. But he’s saying, ‘These innocent people, we have to accept them with love.’
“The way Baldwin talks about love is so complex, and it’s always an active choice, but that was always the part of the letter where I was like, ‘Really?’ It seems very difficult to accept all of these people with love. That’s a lot, James.”
All my friends
Think I should love you anyway
My friend James
Says I should love you anyway
And that’s okay
But ooh, yeah
You’re making it hard for me
Ooh, you’re making it so hard
The song isn’t just hard-hitting lyrically. Like the rest of Legacy! Legacy! it’s fine pop music, which is a smart device. Get people hooked to your tune and hopefully you’ll change their minds, too.