IN DECEMBER 1962, when James Baldwin's "A Letter to My Nephew" was published, my grandmother was at the tail end of her years of bearing children, though still in the throes of raising them. They lived in the "Magic City," Birmingham, Alabama. In a few weeks' time, Birmingham's children would capture the attention of the nation for fighting segregation--they streamed out of schools, sang behind bars, fell and stood up again as police dogs ripped at them, toppled from the force of water cannons. Malcolm X would deride black Alabama's adults for allowing their children to be in the line of fire. But Baldwin admired them. I have a photo of him with Bayard Rustin on my office door. They hold a sign that reads "Birmingham's children."
Baldwin loved children. But more than that, he cherished the minds and capacities of young people. It was a trait he shared with my grandmother, yet their lives could have hardly been more different. Though they stood in the same generation and on the same side of the American color line, Neida Mae Garner Perry was a woman with rural origins. James Arthur Baldwin was urban and urbane. He was a Leo and she was a Libra, both characteristically so. She was domestic, a raiser of children, and he was peripatetic, a knight confronting history.
The lesson of "A Letter to My Nephew," however, was about the future and the past at once. In it, Baldwin cautions his nephew about coming of age in the heat of white supremacy. But he also guides the youth to understand from whence he comes; to treat his genealogy, his father, gently I, like so many others who were profoundly shaped by that essay in youth, have taken seriously its charge of tending to the fact of the lives that bore mine with care.
It is so difficult to witness the pain of those that raised you. It is worse to imagine them reliving it.
When Donald Trump was elected President, I seethed. I found myself saying angrily to anyone who would listen that my mother had grown up in the white nationalist order of "Bombingham," Alabama, and I was enraged that she had to live through its rebirth. That is how personal this assault has felt. Like a target directed at all of our mothers' suffering, their endurance, and their great gift to the nation: allowing America to creep out of its deep hypocrisy and ugly shame.
I couldn't even begin to think about what it would have meant for my grandmother to witness the 2016 election. She would have called him lowdown, because he is. She...