My darling niece,
I pray this letter finds you well and rejoicing in the grace of our Savior! The Lord Jesus is coming soon, and those who have this hope must purify themselves for His return. I trust and hope you’re seeking that beauty we call holiness, conforming to the image and likeness of God our Savior. Pursue holiness with great abandon, knowing that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion at the Day of Christ Jesus!
Your mama tells me the shooting deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, John Crawford in Beaver Creek, Akai Gurley in New York, and the choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island have pricked your conscience and awakened you to injustices you haven’t really seen before. It’s not that the injustices are new. As you’re discovering, the suspicious and outright heinous murder of African-American men and women and even children has a long sad history. The name Emmet Till is perhaps the most famous incident, but read Ida B. Wells’ account of lynchings and you’ll see Till was no anomaly. It’s simply that these tragic deaths are new to you. And having seen them, so many other things also seem new to you.
Something has “dawned on you,” as they say. In my day, we called that rising of awareness “consciousness.” It is the cultural equivalent of being “born again,” if I can put it that way. You look at your hands and they look new. You look at your feet and they do, too. It’s like those resuscitations you see on the movies. The guy has been dead and the people are beating on his chest, performing mouth-to-mouth, and calling out to him to come back. Then all of a sudden his entire body convulses and heaves as life rushes back into him.
I’m glad you’ve awakened to things. You’ve been asleep a long time and, honestly, most of us—your mom, your aunts and uncles—have been content to let you slumber, unaware of many harder aspects of life. We’ve secretly hoped our not telling you about the ugly ways Black people have sometimes lost their lives might spare you some pain, bitterness, and confusion. We’ve very much wanted you to be able to live a fuller freedom than we’ve ever had. That’s been our heart. But if I’m honest, we’ve been unsettled by the prospect that “freedom” might mean an unconscious existence for you. While we’ve sought to spare you, it’s been no easy bargain because the cost of not telling you was your own self-knowledge or self-love and the cost to us was a nagging sense of betrayal or failure or cowardice or dignity.
But now you know. The lights have come on. So let’s talk, Niecie.
This “consciousness” is really quite exhilarating, even intoxicating. That’s why I wanted to write to you. To drop you a few lines about what’s happening—not only what’s happening around you but also what may be happening inside of you, too.
If you’re like me at your age you’re probably feeling nearly every emotion all at once. The winds of life fill the lungs of your soul and everything tingles with feeling. Anger usually appears first. Wrath asks a hundred questions. How could this happen? Why did no one tell me? What’s going on with all these other deaf, dumb and blind Black folks? Why aren’t they in the game? I’m not going to take it anymore! Your blood runs hot. But right on the heals of anger comes its first cousin: fear. You begin to wonder to yourself: If I’ve been asleep this long, what else have I missed? How often have I “betrayed the cause” or “failed my people”? Will this new me be accepted? What friendships will I lose and what strange place must now be my home? So you bounce between fear and anger until you resolve not to “sleep on things” again.
It’s a roller coaster, this consciousness. Alongside the anger and fear there’s the joy. You’ve awakened to an entire world of song and sorrow, dance and demonstration, blues and ballads, pain as old as the country itself, and triumphs unimagined just a generation before. Somehow you’ve finally discovered that you’re Black and that means something. There’s fresh pride in it. Your mom tells me “everything is Black” with you now. You buy Black. You talk Black. You dress Black. You would walk Black if you had a bit more ‘hood in you! Black authors line your shelves and Black art decks your walls. Go ‘head with yo’ Black self! LOL
But here’s the first thing you need to know about what’s happening with you right now: You think you’re discovering yourself but you just might be losing yourself.
What do I mean? Well, take, for example, the anger you feel. You can lose yourself in that anger. You interpret it as righteous indignation. You feel justified because you feel mistreated. And all the mistreatment of all Black people has become “yours.” You voluntarily own generations of undocumentable mistreatment. Of course it’s right to be angry at injustice. But, Niecie, some people are addicted to anger. They’re not happy unless they’re unhappy. And the flame that burns them up will soon burn up everything around them. Some of the looters in Ferguson didn’t just throw Molotov cocktails. They were Molotov cocktails. They simply needed a match to explode, and the kangaroo court that was Ferguson, MO was one giant strike of the match for them. So they burned, and they burned things, and if they’re not careful they’ll get burned. Anger is a volatile master. Don’t serve her or she’ll incinerate so much of your humanity.
And you can also lose yourself in the heady romanticism of Black culture. You can so focus on the greats of African and African-American history that you see neither the grime of the same history or the glory of other cultures. The irony with this is you become what you’re protesting. In my day, we marched and chanted for African-American cultural centers on major university campuses. We rejected as oppressive the Eurocentric canon along with all its patriarchs (for they were all men; you’d think white women weren’t even a part of white history and culture). We wanted a Black canon and Black patriarchs (sadly, we ignored Black women as astutely as white men ignored white women). We gave ourselves so fully to this movement that the rest of the world—Asian, European, Latin American, Caribbean, and so on—simply vanished from consideration. In the end, we effectively traded one hegemony (European) for another (African-American). We thought we were emerging, becoming, awakening… embracing an Afrocentric ideal, but really we were losing ourselves in ourselves.
The ways to lose yourself in this protean period are legion. Can I tell you one other? You can lose yourself by letting other Black people define you. There are a lot of us waiting to tell you exactly what it means for you to be Black, and then judge whether or not you are “Black enough.” They’ll want to “keep it real” for you by telling you what Black people do and don’t do. We do have family reunions but we don’t go skiing. We do vote Democratic—and maybe independent—but never Republican. We do eat chicken but not around white people. And on it will go until you’re like a shoestring tied into so many knots your life cannot lace the holes that God made for you. My dear niece, it’s entirely possible to be enslaved by Black people who think themselves the arbiters of what it means to be Black.
Here’s the paradox in all of this is this: Blackness isn’t one thing. Truth be told, it ain’t even a thing. Blackness doesn’t exist ontologically. There’s no essential essence, no irreducible nucleus around which all the other elements revolve. Blackness is a “thing” seductive yet elusive. It’s a shape shifter. It’s like nailing jell-o to a wall. The quicker you discover Blackness does not exist objectively (though the discovery can’t be rushed) the sooner you’ll be able to be Black without trying. There is a sense in which the persons who try most to be Black wind up being the “least” Black among us. They try to demonstrate something that cannot be demonstrated, only received from the all-wise Hands of Providence. Blackness is a gift, a stewardship, a fractal design fashioned by Omniscience.
Right now your life is one big assertion when you stop to think about it. You’re crying out along with everyone else. Your hope disguises itself as a demand to be seen, heard, acknowledged, and respected. Those are good things. But first you have to demand it of yourself for yourself. Can you see yourself? Can you hear yourself? Have you yet acknowledged and respected yourself? To do those things, you must not lose your self. You gotta know who you are.
You’ve no doubt come across the ancient saying, “Man, know thyself.” I can’t help but laugh as I remember how we used to fight with our classmates and even professors over whether that was an ancient Greek or ancient Egyptian saying. Then we’d have to fight with some people about whether the ancient Egyptians were Black or as one writer put it, “white Africans”! Seems Hollywood is still provoking that argument. But in my day knowledge of self was the summum bonum, the highest good. It was the touchstone of cultural consciousness and to be sought above all things.
My dear niece, you will discover this in time: Your cultural or ethnic identity can become an idol. It seems a silly thing to say to you now. It may even seem like a betrayal of self-knowledge and a betrayal of our people. To say that knowledge of self and cultural pride can become idolatrous may even have the ring of self-sabotage, a kind of suicide in a world seemingly bent on destroying Black people. If you can, trust me on this. If you serve this idol it will, like all idols, first control you, then destroy you.
Remember this: You cannot know yourself truly and properly until you know God your Creator. We only partially know ourselves if we lose sight of God. And that partial knowledge is so imperceptibly small and even deceptive that it can barely be called “knowledge.” What you must not lose is a clear grasp of who God is and how knowledge of God defines, shapes, and colors all other knowledge. If that’s true of you then you cannot easily be lost.
My hope is that the fire that drives you is the fire taken from the altar of God, a purifying fire that makes good all your protests for justice. I pray that it’s God’s fire “shut up in your bones.” And I pray that your zeal would be according to knowledge. I’m glad you’re finding out things about yourself and our people. Cherish that knowledge. But cherish even more that these things are not accidental; they were determined by that God who made all people from one pair of parents and determined the times and the borders of our habitation. You’re coming into the knowledge of something done by God; only don’t let it undo your relationship with God.
There’s so much more to write. I trust the Lord will give me an opportunity to write again soon. But for now, don’t lose yourself in either the protests or the awakening consciousness you’re experiencing.
With undying love and hope,