In a letter to his fifteen-year-old nephew and namesake, penned in 1963 on the one hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation, author James Baldwin says that American white society has unwittingly placed "the Negro" in a position so untenable that it is "not very far removed" from the oppressive London of the past, so famously described by Charles Dickens. This situation was not created through the malice of present white citizens, but through innocent oversight on their part; the majority population of the day is so used to the way things are that they essentially are not even aware that African Americans exist. In order to survive in such an environment, young James and those of his generation will have to be strong, drawing from the love which others of his race have bestowed on them, and which they now must pass on to "[their] children and [their] children's children."
Baldwin asserts that because his nephew "[is] black, and for no other reason," American society has deemed him worthless, set limits to his ambitions, and conditioned him to "make peace with mediocrity." The establishment has placed boundaries on what he can do, where he can live, and whom he can marry. Though these assertions will no doubt be called exaggerations by white America, every African American in Harlem needs only to look to his own experiences to know that they are true. The workings of society have been deliberately constructed to make the African American believe what white people say about him, but these conditions testify "not...to [the black man's] inferiority but to [the white man's] inhumanity and fear." It is only by remembering this that young James and those like him will be able to break free of their shackles and grasp the opportunities they deserve.
It is a fallacy, according to Baldwin, for African Americans to feel that they must become like white people in order to be accepted. In fact, it is not the black man who needs to be accepted by the white man at all; it is the white man who needs to be accepted by the black man. Baldwin says that in the...
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