America, June 2018
Let me begin with what matters most: I love you.
I don’t know how many times I have written this letter in my mind, and I have no idea when you will read it. It started as soon as you were born. I was the fifth person in our family to hold you. I’d never before met a human that new to the world. You were very small, but you weighed everything. I can’t forget the look on the nurse’s face when she came into that hospital room in Boston and saw you in my arms as you settled into your first night’s sleep. Not everyone can see what is so obvious to us: we are family.
You look very much like your folks. You have your father’s eyes and your mother’s smile, both of which are excellent things, because Mommy and Daddy are Black and beautiful and brilliant, like you. You also have their spirit, their essence, which is at least as important, because the truth is that you were born into a world that too often measures human value by the surface of things rather than the depths—the skin, not the soul. This is terrible, of course, but it is also treacherous for a child like you, born at the intersection of so many things this country seeks to covet and control, and deny and destroy. We will teach you all this history someday—soon—before this reality becomes too obtrusive and the nation’s relationship to you becomes too abusive. And it most certainly will, given its long criminal record. I hope you will always know that we have tried to love and protect you—fiercely, ferociously—since before you even knew us.
I have known your father since he was even younger than you are now. We met when I taught at his elementary school, when he asked me to be his brother, when Auntie and Nana welcomed me in, when we all first fell in love. Ours is an uncommon story, a really beautiful one: we are a chosen family. There are other family stories that are not mine to tell. Yours is a complex inheritance, but one thing is constant: we are not fancy people. We have had to make our way in this world, too often with undeserved difficulty, against overwhelming odds, but we persist, on our strongest days, like the superheroes you love to read about in books. Let me say this about your father, my brother: he is a very good man, tough and sensitive in equal measure. He is named for his father, a man broken by an unjust war and his own very bad demons; because of these things, you will never know him. But Daddy is still a dreamer, a man of peace who loves hard and refuses to break, as much as this nation conspires to guarantee it. Many thousands before him have gone another way, including some of our childhood friends—mine as well as his—but he has taken a different road, with no guarantees but the ragged, resilient hope that offers a fixed, flickering beacon in the tougher times.
You, on the other hand—you were named for the eldest daughter of Barack Hussein Obama. Yours was a very popular name back then, that historic year when he became the First Black President. That was a really big deal, though it feels like a lifetime ago. When I think of how young you still are, I have difficulty apprehending how much has changed in such a short time. I’m an historian, which means that I tell stories about people from the past as a way to make sense of whether things change over time; put another way, I track this nation’s progress so we can hold it to account. I am afraid that when the stories are told of that time—the moment of your precious birth into this nation—it will be seen not as an acceleration point for justice, as many of us hoped and expected, but as a breaking point when the arc of history got bent backwards, again. I want to be wrong, for the sake of your entire generation, but I feel it in my bones that we’ve been here before. After all, your Mommy and Daddy and Uncles and Aunties—we are all from a different time; and your ancestors—well, they were born into harsher circumstances than most of us have had to endure. We all wish for progress, some of us have felt it and many of us work hard for it, but we must never expect it. I had fallen in love with the fantasy that you would be much older before you figured out that a mediocre white man— much less a madman who hates families like ours—could run the country. But history has a peculiar, stubborn way of being repetitive, which is why I was so relieved, and inspired, when you said to me recently: “He is everything you teach me not to be.” How I wish you could vote.
America intended for you and me to be enemies. You can’t yet fully comprehend this, thank God, but this country was built, in large part, to keep people like us apart. The colors of our skin— yours black, mine white—are falsified fragments of evidence that have long been used as fictional alibis to justify and pardon some of the worst crimes against humanity. You may not remember this, but several Christmases ago you asked Daddy: “why isn’t Uncle Black?” We all made a joke of it at the time—you know how we like to laugh about these things at home—but the deeper meaning was clear: why am I not like you? It’s a good question, impossible for me to answer. But when that older white boy called you that racist slur on that school bus in elementary school, I wanted so badly to change the color of my skin, to be as Black as you and Daddy and Mommy and most everyone else in our family, or to have none of this matter any more. But these, too, are fictional fantasies, because race and racism have always been the realest things about America—the wretched foundation of its original sins, the rotten core of our ongoing inheritances. After all these years, I don’t know which is my bigger fear: that you will someday see me as an adversary, or merely an exception. But my biggest fear is that the people who look an awful lot like me will someday break your spirit—force you to doubt yourself, or worse, convince you to participate in your own undoing—because this would finally break my heart. To prevent that, you must discover your own truth, never let anyone unmoor it, and cling to it as if your life depends on it. Because it does. Please keep this wisdom from the great ancestor James Baldwin close to you: “Take no one’s word for anything, including mine, but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear.” You seem to already know this, somehow, because you asked us this about that white boy: why is he so angry? That really is the essential question.
Whenever I worry about you, and we do, I try to remember all the times you have shown us what it means to be free. When you didn’t bat an eye the first time you realized that CJ and me—your Black Uncle and your white Uncle—have been married to each other almost as long as you’ve been alive. When you came to your birthday party one weekend in camouflage and cornrows and my birthday party another weekend in twists and a pink superhero tee. When you warned me, with a serious smile, that I would need to learn how to twist and braid before you’d ever let me do your hair. When you announced that you want to be a boxer and an astronaut and the President of the United States, and saw nothing unreasonable with any of this. Because there isn’t. When you told the little boys on your basketball team to pass you the ball because the team has a better chance of winning if they do. When you began your training in martial arts because you want to protect yourself and never hurt others. When you changed from the bright colors we suggested to a black blazer of your own choosing before you introduced yourself to the real life superhero John Lewis. When you pay no mind any time someone insists that you “eat like a girl,” or shrug your shoulders any time someone complains that you “act like a boy,” and just carry on whenever someone says you’re either “too sensitive” or “too tough.” When you tell us how much you love Janelle Monae, and we aren’t the least bit surprised. Perhaps all of this stems from the fact that you were born into a family that is Black and interracial and Queer and feminist and so many other perfectly wonderful things. Perhaps it’s because you’re being raised by a vast village of tough women and sensitive men. Perhaps you are just who you are—strong and happy, a new normal beyond the old boundaries—and that, my dear, is just fine. You write your own rules, play your own game, and live (and love) on your own terms, because this, at last, is what it means to be free.
I would be a fool to promise you freedom. Ours is not a world where such promises are usually kept. And in any case, no one can give another person freedom. We must find it for ourselves, and too many people never do. That doesn’t mean you have to search for it alone; history teaches us, many times over, that there’s strength in numbers. And there is. There will be struggles ahead, for sure. This nation will impose its unfair burdens upon you, and disappoint you more times than you will be able to count, but you can’t let any of this break you. Our promise to you, all kids like you, is this: as you find your own freedom and live your own truth, we will continue to love and protect you—fiercely, ferociously, fabulously. We will get up each day, for as long as we are able, and tear down, as best we can, the obstacles in your way so that you can light and lead the way to a different world.
You recently gave me a birthday present: a small bracelet with shiny round beads, a purple tassel, and four black and white dice that spell H-O-P-E. You told me you were giving me hope because I give you hope. The world will always need hope, Malia, because hope is the root and the wellspring of freedom. May we always find it to give. I love you.
image courtesy of author