Open Letter to My Nephews and Niece on the Day After the Trayvon Martin VerdictJonathan Mathias Lassiter I Race & Ethnicity I Commentary I July 16th, 2013
You, my nephews and my niece, are considered by some to be unintelligent, violent, and inferior. But you are none of those things. Please believe me. Please know that. The knowledge of your worth is not idealistic but factual. Idealism is for young people. I used to believe that the world operated in a just manner. That if you worked hard against oppression, freedom would indeed ring. I must be getting older because I am no longer idealistic. I no longer believe that with enough hard work, a person, regardless of their skin color, gender, sexual orientation or any of that can achieve anything they wish. And now, writing this, I don't know if I ever fully believed that. I think I just wished, prayed, and hoped it was the case. It required a lot of hope to resist the truth.
This letter is an attempt to spare you from walking around in an idealistic haze denying the truth. The sooner you come to terms with the truth, you can start to navigate through the world in a manner that is more informed and self-directed. The first truth that I wish to share is the truth that your grandfather told me often during my childhood: "As a Black [person], you have to work twice as hard to get half as far." As a child, I did not want to accept this. I thought I knew better. I always worked hard and I was always rewarded. Teachers praised me for my academic achievement. I won awards and was recognized by adults as a "good boy." It gave me status to be recognized by the powers that be.
But as I began to mature into a man, my eyes started to be opened. I started to realize that being praised by the powers that be is a hollow achievement-a smoke screen for the injustices perpetrated by those powers. That status only made me docile and content with the status quo. I started to realize what your grandfather was talking about. He was not just an angry Black man. He was angry; but that was not all he was. He was outraged! And justifiably so at a world that degraded him because of his black skin. My father-your grandfather-told me with much fervor, the story of his father-your great grandfather's-discrimination and cruel treatment at the hands of white people. Your great grandfather was a sharecropper in the 1940s and 1950s Jim Crow Georgia. You are young and may not know what a sharecropper is but it is important that you do because being a sharecropper meant that your great-grandfather was relegated to the bottom of a socioeconomic system that exploited his hard work. This same thing still happens at various levels for many different people regardless of their race across the globe today. Anyway, a sharecropper was a person who leased a plot of land from the owner of the land, planted seeds, harvested the crops, and then sold those crops. After selling the crops from the harvest, the sharecropper then had to pay the landowner a percentage of the earnings to pay the bills of leasing the land and any other expenses that were related to farming. The problem with that business model was that the sharecropper was usually left with more debt than profit and remained in a perpetual cycle of poverty and thus bondage. Your great grandfather was such a man and your grandfather was born into such a cycle. One day as your great grandfather was walking down the street with your grandfather-who was a young boy at the time-a white man "much younger" than your great grandfather referred to him as a "boy." The social climate of that time was such whereas that type of exchange was commonplace and your great grandfather had no recourse. Your great grandfather-a grown man at the time-was subjected to a dehumanizing assault to his manhood and dignity. That unfair treatment stuck with your grandfather and he carried that with him his entire life. And since being told this story as a young boy myself, it has stayed with me.
That story is testament for the lack of regard for Black life. Black skin has been deemed inferior from the first moment European eyes set upon it. It has continued to be deemed inferior with the enslavement of Africans in the Americas and the Caribbean islands. It was deemed inferior when a young woman named Mira was murdered by her slave master in 1839 North Carolina, when a young boy named Emmett Till was murdered in 1955 Mississippi, when Oscar Grant was murdered in 2009 Oakland, and in the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012 Florida. None of these victims' loved ones saw justice for these crimes. And there are countless unnamed victims whose lives were deemed inferior enough to take at various times throughout history and presently. However, Black life is not just deemed inferior, it is deemed dangerous.
The white supremacist society we live in is not a new one. Indeed, the mentality-and it is a mentality that enslaves minds and feeds a system of injustice-that privileges whiteness is a global one. We have brothers and sisters in India and China who bleach their skin so that they may achieve or maintain fair complexions. This is a disastrous mentality to have. A mentality that teaches one to so thoroughly hate herself/himself that she/he makes physical alterations to her/his body. However, at this time, my kinfolk in India and China are not in the forefront of my brain. You are. My biggest fear is that you will believe that you are inferior, unintelligent, violent, and dangerous. I am concerned that white supremacist ideas might colonize your mind, plant poisonous seeds, and sprout strange fruit. So in the same spirit that James Baldwin wrote to his nephew in "My Dungeon Shook-Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation," I am writing to you, my nephews and niece. There are many people that will consider and treat you inferior but you must resist this messaging no matter how beautifully packaged it is. Many of these people will have white skin and many will be people of color like you. They will consider you inferior because of their own delusional mental schemas. Their opinions have no real bearing in reality and must be taken for what they are: false. You are not Pecola Breedlove or Bigger Thomas. Many people that look like you will believe that they are inferior and accept negative descriptions of themselves and because they accept those descriptions of themselves they will try to force-feed them to you. Yet, you must again, resist.
The second truth you must know is that you come from great stock. Your biological ancestors and the Black men and women who have come before you are proof of your worth. They are outstanding, so you are outstanding! Your brilliance is right in line with George Washington Carver and Benjamin Banneker's genius. Your artistry is in the tradition of Lorrain Hansberry, Zora Neale Hurston, and Toni Morrison. Your athletic prowess is the same as Ulysses Dove, Jesse Owens, and Wilma Rudolph. Your vision is as searing as Nat Turner, Fred Hampton, and Cornel West. Those people are the solid foundation that you must build upon.
You have a lot of which to be proud. You must be proud of yourself. If you cannot love yourself and realize your importance, no one else can. You must be proud of each and every achievement no matter how small. Even as you work towards the bigger picture, you must celebrate the little victories. You made the honor roll, celebrate! You moved onto the next grade in school, celebrate! You resisted temptation to give up even when the task was difficult, celebrate! You said no to peer pressure, celebrate! Celebrate your survival. But do not be satisfied with survival. You must thrive. However, you must know that thriving does not mean becoming Beyoncé, Brian Moynihan, or President Barack Obama. You must resist gangster activities, whether in a boardroom or street corner.
The third truth is that you have a responsibility to struggle for equality, justice, and a fulfilling life for you and your fellow human beings. Thriving is a life lived with purpose, meaning, and integrity. I write these things because this is the only way you will survive. You may still be gunned down by an insecure, arrogant vigilante. But your spirit, your actions will live on if they are actions carried forth from your soul. From a place of love and not fear. Fear is what makes an adult stalk and kill an unarmed boy. Fear of changes in the status quo, fear of realization of one's own insecurities, and the possibility that she/he may indeed be the inferior one and not her/his prey. Fear is what fuels complacency. Fear of losing a house, fear of losing a job, fear of having one's own life taken and then not avenged. Fear is a weapon of colonization that communicates to a people that "this is just the way things are." After the Trayvon Martin verdict yesterday, I saw a lot of Black people on Facebook type: "I knew he would get off." That statement points to a larger problem. I, too, knew that there was a very small chance that George Zimmerman would serve any time for murdering Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman is just one more person in America who exerted his white supremacist masculinity through violence. However, I am not satisfied with just saying, "I knew it." The problem is that I should not know it.
It should not be a given that Black lives don't matter. But in this American society it is and has been a given. And honestly, that makes me scared. Scared for you and scared for me. But I will not just sit and pray to Jesus for "real" justice, again as I saw a lot of Black people on Facebook suggesting. Because the fourth truth is that Jesus will do nothing. That statement will be hard for some people to believe. It might be hard for you to believe. But believe it. The truth about Jesus, what made Jesus such a great prophet was not any mystical powers or divine lineage. We all are connected to the divine in some way or another. But what made Jesus so remarkable was that he did not let his fear conquer him. He knew that there was something greater than him that needed to be accomplished. He knew that his life had purpose and that purpose was to struggle for the freedom of all people, especially the most vulnerable and oppressed. Jesus was a Jewish man-not some blond haired blue-eyed Abercrombie model, don't believe the hype-who took the side of prostitutes, people with diseases, and children. He did not care if the people in power during that time agreed with him or not. He would not stay silent. Jesus' mind was thoroughly liberated. He knew that his power was in his voice. In speaking for those who could not speak for themselves. He knew as one of our great teachers, Audre Lorde, knew that "silence [would] not protect him" and that "when [he] dare[d] to be powerful, to use [his] strength in the service of [his] vision…it [became] less and less important whether [or not he was] afraid." That is the power of Jesus and other great prophets like Malcolm X, Toussaint Louverture, and Shirley Chisholm. So do not give in to the complacency of religion. Your higher power is powerful but only as powerful as you are willing to be. You must use your voice. You must speak the truth from a decolonized mind. You must not remain docile in a system that does not value you and will seek to subjugate and/or kill you because of your black skin or any other reason.
I am trying to lead by example. I am trying to speak the truth. This letter does not feel like enough as I write it. But in a world where the dominating systems in operation are designed to stifle growth and maintain the status quo, one's words and mind are the most powerful tools. If they remain uncolonized and free they are the instruments of creation. A person can create her/his world with her/his ideas and words. Ideas become words, and words become actions. And actions become change. There might be times where you do not know what to say: follow your heart. Listen to the voices within that come from your lived experience. Look at the world around you and know that what you see does not have to be. The status quo is not the best you can do. I am trying to be an example for you. That is why I have been away from home in graduate school for six years now. That is why I have not been able to see you grow up. I am trying to better myself so that I may speak from a place of truth and help others better themselves. I am trying to make the world a little better for you. And you must make the world a little better for others. That is hard work. It requires sacrifice, sitting with ambiguity, tolerating anxiety, failing sometimes, and the ability to move forward in a world in which the ground is constantly moving. It requires for you to be a critical thinker who does not accept easy binary solutions or idealized versions of society.
So if you have not been freed from your idealism, you will soon experience such emancipation. The world we live in is a cruel and harsh teacher. This letter is written in hopes that it may inspire you and provide some type of path for you along your journey from children to adults. From complacent citizens to trailblazers for freedom. You, I, your parents, classmates, and fellow human brethren live in difficult times. My heart hurts for Trayvon Martin. I am tempted to fall into cynicism and question all my struggles for justice. But the truth is that all of our time on this earth is limited. Whether we are killed in our own neighborhoods by people who look like us with white supremacist ideas burrowed into their minds, terrorized by people with white skin, or go gently into that good night, we all have a finite amount of time to live our lives with purpose and to struggle against all odds for freedom. The struggle for freedom starts with the individual. It starts in our own minds. You must start with your mind and then spread the message of liberation to others. Once you have decolonized your mind, you will then be able to struggle for the liberation of others-whether you achieve it or not. You may not achieve all of your dreams and you might not change the world but you must continue to struggle to make your dreams your reality and to make the world a little better for your future children and nephews and nieces to live. And as your grandfather told me, you are going to have to work twice as hard to get half as far. And not just because you have black skin but because you are working against a nefarious system. So work twice as hard, three times as hard so that at least you will have moved at all. That movement can change a world.