In 1962, the magazine The Progressive printed James Baldwin’s missive “A Letter to My Nephew,” the most popular piece they have published to date. This year’s February/March issue both celebrates and builds upon the notion Baldwin presented fifty-five years ago: that in facing racism on both a systemic and personal level, the difficult but imperative task is to accept oneself while also embracing those who perpetuate racism.
In the current issue of The Progressive, Ariel Felton uses Baldwin’s model in her piece, “A Letter to My Niece,” in which she seeks to empower her sister’s daughter and explains that the world will inevitably try to stamp definitions onto her but that she need not accept them as limitations. Felton is humble in the plea for forgiveness that she makes: “Forgive me, Thalia,” she writes, acknowledging her attempts to blend in and admit, like Baldwin before her, that while she can offer advice for navigating the experience of being othered in America, part of that advice is just to be better than previous generations. While the words are for her niece, however, they are a mantra for Felton herself, too, a declaration that there is time yet to “create a definition of myself that is real and mine… an expansive and personal definition.”
Felton’s letter is poignant and noble in its admission of failure and its self-exposure of both pain and hope. Baldwin, too, is buoyed forth by a kind of idealism within his account of negative experience when he asks his nephew to combat hate with love, a notion commonly associated with Martin Luther King Jr.’s powerful March on Washington speech. There is a question that lingers underneath these noble ideas, however. Is it meek of Felton to apologize for her weakness in trying to blend in for so long, for what she deems her wrong approach to racism? Do those who have experienced othering have any reason to question doing the best they can?
While Baldwin and Felton address racism through a personal lens, this issue of The Progressive uses the framework of their letters to tackle the subject of “othering” as it is experienced by many groups and individuals in America. The magazine includes Wajahat Ali’s personal account of “Blending in as a Pakistani Muslim” and a feature that allows a variety of social justice leaders and thinkers to offer their responses to the question, “How do we counteract othering in America today?” These pieces all contribute to a conversation that is particularly relevant this month as we both celebrate and critically examine Black History.
Amongst these myriad voices, Felton’s words resonate: “Only you can decide how you’re going to move through this world, what you hold dear, what parts of yourself you find pride in. Try to forgive those of us in the family who have helped press those definitions on to you.”
If you are interested in reading the current or back issues of The Progressive, come explore Walker’s diverse periodical collection for reads both thoughtful and entertaining.