Baldwin begins by telling his nephew James that he has tried to write this letter five times, but has torn up each attempt. He confides that James’s face keeps appearing in his mind’s eye as he starts to write, an image that also evokes memories of Baldwin’s brother, the boy’s father.
The fact that Baldwin has had trouble putting these words to paper indicates how much he cares about the letter’s content. By evoking the faces of his father and his brother, he calls attention to the ever-present importance of history and family lineage, a motif that figures greatly into discussions of race in America.
Drawing a comparison between James and Baldwin’s brother, Baldwin calls the boy and the boy’s father “tough,” “moody,” and quick to appear “truculent” (or aggressively self-assertive) in order to avoid being perceived as soft or weak. Baldwin thinks that James has inherited this from his grandfather (Baldwin’s father), whom the boy never met and who was bitter because he “really believed what white people said about him.” Because of this, the old man became overly “holy.” James, on the other hand, shows no inclination toward religion or holiness because he is part of “another era,” an era that Baldwin describes metaphorically, explaining that the African-Americans of this era left “the land” and came upon what the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier once called “the cities of destruction.”
Again calling upon James’s forebears, Baldwin holds his own father up as an example of a black man defeated by white authority. Believing what white people said about him, Baldwin’s father retreated into religious life, the church ultimately functioning as yet another form of authority. Baldwin mentions “the cities of destruction,” a reference to the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier’s belief that, despite the early 20th-century notion that African-Americans should move to cities in order to prosper, urban centers only threatened to tear apart the black nuclear family. The fact that James is part of a generation that originated in these cities gives him a new vantage point from which he can more realistically assess issues of race and oppression, at least in comparison to his grandfather.
Baldwin remarks that he has known both his brother and James for the entirety of their lives. He watched his brother be carried in his father’s arms, has kissed him and spanked him, has watched him learn how to walk. Knowing somebody for so long, Baldwin says, gives you a certain understanding of the passing of time and the different ways people develop, especially through pain. When he looks at his brother, he sees an amalgamation of personal history and agony embedded even in the man’s laughter. He recognizes the influence of the oppression that America has inflicted upon his brother, calling this a “crime” and accusing his country and “countrymen” of “destroying hundreds of thousands of lives” and remaining unwilling to admit or even recognize it. He argues that the people inflicting this kind of damage cannot be allowed to think of themselves as innocent, for “it is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
Here again, Baldwin calls attention to the power of understanding one’s history. This unrelenting historical gaze demonstrates the importance of remembering past suffering in order to comprehend present-day struggles. Knowing the tangible ways white America has influenced his brother’s life, Baldwin turns his attention to the innocent attitude white people automatically assume. This false sense of innocence is created by white peoples’ unwillingness to recognize the harm they and their ancestors have inflicted upon African-Americans. As long as this outlook continues, white people will be able to carry on with destruction, Baldwin maintains.
Baldwin anticipates that the “innocents” reading this letter will call him “bitter” for putting for such difficult, pessimistic ideas, but he declares that he isn’t writing the letter to them—he’s writing it to James. And in doing so, he takes it upon himself to teach the young boy how to deal with these sorts of people (these “innocents”), because they refuse to truly acknowledge James’s very existence.
In this moment, Baldwin refuses to pander to white society. Instead of concerning himself with making white people comfortable, he strives to show James the reality of the situation, which is that, because of the color of his skin, white America does not accept him or acknowledge his worth.
Baldwin points out to James that, when James was born, his parents and grandmother had every reason to despair; they had brought yet another precious human being into a world that would refuse to accept him. But they didn’t despair; James arrived ready “to be loved” and thus strengthened them “against the loveless world.” Baldwin acknowledges how sinister—how truly bad—things must look from James’s perspective these days, but he reminds James that the day he was born also was grim and that, despite all the hardship, they have not stopped loving each other, which is the only means of survival. And Baldwin tells his beloved nephew that now he must survive for the sake of the generations coming after him.
The concept of love emerges in this moment as a salvaging force of hope, as something that might carry James through the racism and structural oppression he is sure to encounter. Furthermore, Baldwin’s preoccupation with history takes on a new element when he tells James that he must survive for the sake of his future children. Suddenly the idea of lineage and history becomes not only a useful tool of the past, but also a way of projecting hope and resilience into the future.
James is destined to fail in America, Baldwin writes. The “innocent country” is designed to enforce limitations upon him. This is because he is black, and Baldwin emphasizes that this is indeed the only reason. The “ghettos” into which James has been thrust are meant to dictate what he can and cannot do, and any aspirations are met with discouragement. In short, James is expected to “make peace with mediocrity” instead of striving for greatness. Again, Baldwin anticipates that white people will disagree with this hard truth by arguing that he is exaggerating the country’s racial circumstances, but he makes clear that these people don’t know the black experience. James, on the other hand, does know this experience and therefore understands its limitations, a fact that makes it possible to transcend them. “If you know whence you came,” Baldwin counsels, “there is really no limit to where you can go.”
Yet again, Baldwin underlines the great power that lies in understanding one’s history—both personal and cultural. In this case, knowing the limitations of being a black man in America includes not only recognizing the influence of the past, but also identifying and acknowledging the current barriers and refusing to acquiesce to them.
Again, Baldwin stresses how important it is that James not believe what white people say about him. Any nasty belief they try to advance about him is not evidence of some undesirable aspect of his being, but rather a reflection of their own insecurities and indecency. Baldwin urges James not to think that there is any reason for him to strive to be accepted by white people. Similarly, there is no reason that white people should believe that they must accept black people. Rather, James must find a way to accept them, and to do so with love, “for these innocent people have no other hope.” Baldwin maintains that such people are operating helplessly in a history they don’t understand, a history that tells them to blindly believe black people are inferior to white people.
Although black people must acknowledge their limiting circumstances, Baldwin argues that they must not believe—or invest in—the supposed reasons driving their oppression. Because white people refuse to examine their embattled history—a history that plainly exposes their ugly prejudices—they are helpless and unable to come to terms even with themselves. Black people, on the other hand, are very much aware of America’s history (since they have suffered through it) and thus must help their Caucasian countrymen in understanding their position in this country. Again, Baldwin tells James that this must be executed with love, reinforcing the idea that love can be put to use for the benefit of the country.
There are, of course, white people who know that black people aren’t inferior, but Baldwin says they rarely act on this belief. He tells James that if white Americans were to commit themselves to the task of eradicating inequality, they would be risking the loss of their own identity as they know it. Baldwin uses a metaphor to illustrate this point; he asks James to imagine waking up one morning to find “the sun shining and all the stars aflame.” He says that black people in America have served as a constant—a fixed and unchanging star in the sky. As this star begins to move after so many years of immobility, “heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.”
The white people who have staked their own identities on the oppression of black people lose their sense of reality as black people slowly defy the limitations placed upon them. The unwillingness of white people (even those who understand racism) to commit themselves to remedying America’s racial problem belies a great fear of losing hold of who they think they are, since they’ve so long defined themselves in relation to the debasement of black people.
Be that as it may, Baldwin reminds his nephew that even these ignorant white people are his brothers. If integration is ever to be successful, it will mean that black people—with love—force these brothers to “see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.” Baldwin reminds James that he comes from a long line of tough, brave people who “picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads” and overcame seemingly insurmountable hardships in highly respectable ways. James is the descendant, Baldwin informs him, of some of the greatest poets in history, one of whom once said, “The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.”
The quote included in this passage is taken from a slave spiritual. This is significant because it serves as yet another reminder to James that he is the descendant of a severely oppressed people. But even so, this lyric embodies optimism even in the face of the harshest form of degradation, showing that even the very structures of captivity—a “dungeon” and “chains”—sometimes fall away and yield to freedom.
Ending the letter, Baldwin tells James that, as they both know, “the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon.” He concludes by asserting that, in order for black people to be free, white people must also be free.
Though Baldwin’s assessment that freedom has not yet been won may seem pessimistic, the unifying sentiment he sets forth when he says that white people must be free in order for black people to be free brings with it a certain kind of optimism that is, at its core, involved with the process of using love to bring black and white people together.