An Open Letter to My Sister, Ava DuVernay

Son of Baldwin
Image description: Ava DuVernay seen seated on the right, on a couch, hands folded before her, looking into the camera. An abstract wall-art painting hanging behind the couch.

Originally published in Shadow and Act on January 21, 2015.

I was taking a walk around Brooklyn today with my nephew Christian and the subject of the series When They See Us came up. My nephew said: “Yo, we have to really protect Ava. She’s out here doing the work!” I was so happy to hear him say that and told him that I had once written an open letter to DuVernay previously with the same goal in mind. In light of that bit of serendipity, I’d like to republish the letter here as it is no longer directly available on the original site.

Dear Ava,

I feel somewhat self-conscious about writing this letter to you, about this particular subject matter, as bombs are strapped to little black girls and detonated in town squares; as men of color are pushed from rooftops, real and figurative, because they dared to love other men; as black transgender women are bludgeoned to death in broad daylight, in front of unmoved spectators, in streets all over the country; as black disabled people are scapegoated and executed as regular cultural practice; as American police forces, much like the paddy rollers and Klansmen before them, don’t possess the necessary humanity required to distinguish black people from shooting targets. These are hurried and complex times.

Some would say that now, in the midst of this mayhem, is not the time to center art, that the artist, for the present moment, must necessarily recede into the background in order to make room for the revolutionary — as though those two states of being, those two approaches to the matters at hand, are mutually exclusive; as though they couldn’t exist simultaneously, even within the same person. The conventional wisdom asks why devote time to the public defense of a filmmaker when my energy could be better spent in the streets (as though multitasking is outside the realm of possibility).

But I have seen your art from nearly the beginning; seen it and understood it precisely for what it was. My Mic Sounds Nice, I Will Follow, Middle of Nowhere, The Door, Venus Vs. Here, in these filmic multiverses, black people are fully realized, dimensional. Like in Toni Morrison’s literary canon, when you say “people,” you mean “black people.” You have given us the joyous opportunity to be the Default: flesh and blood and brain and bone; sly and raucous; shining and fretful; rhythmic and flawed; quiet and funky; loud, honey, and shaking groove things; beautiful, but most importantly, ordinary. The fantasy of being a regular ol’ human being, a basic principle that Hollywood has, since its inception, denied black people. Instead, it has been doing the insidious work that I suppose any white supremacist society is charged with doing if it wishes to remain white supremacist: disseminating half-truths and half-lives; making us the Ooga Booga and other things that go bump at midnight in the homes of white folk; or, conversely, sexless, smiling, supernatural sage-servants who exist only to make white people’s lives more livable — rewarding, mightily, the complicit among us.

Actor Anthony Mackie says that Hollywood is simply tired of talking about race. I wonder: Did he see Annabelle? They literally had Alfre Woodard’s character jump out of the window and give her soul to the devil to save a white woman and her baby. Did he analyze his own character’s Song of the South-like deference to Whiteness in the Captain America sequel? From my vantage point, it doesn’t seem like Hollywood is tired of talking about race; it seems they’re frightened by not being able to control the narrative about it. As James Baldwin pointed out in 1964, “I, speaking now as Negro, have been described by you for hundreds of years. And now, I can describe you. And that’s part of [your] panic.”

But really, we ain’t even thinking about them.


That’s a lie.

The truth is, in this country, maybe all over the world, all many of us do is think about white people. We can’t help it. The menace of whiteness looms large; its curiosity childlike, overwhelming, intrusive, demanding. Often, our own aspirations and desires align with its tenets. We define nearly everything — from art to happiness to love to power to spirituality to wealth — on its terms. It’s seemingly inescapable. In our quest for its recognition, we often express disdain and a complete disregard for one another.

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. traveled to Watts when the riots occurred in 1965, and encountered black citizens about the destruction of their neighborhoods, they told the good reverent doctor that they had won. When King asked what they thought they had won precisely, they said, “We made them [white people] pay attention to us.” The lengths we’re willing to tread in order to get white people to notice our humanity can cause the greatest of dissonance in even the most rational observer. It’s not entirely our own fault, though. Most of us have never encountered another model for living to emulate, and, in a vacuum, we imitate the robber barons who despise us. I’m pretty certain that if we knew better, we’d do better. King thought so, too. He cautioned us, after the Voting Rights Act failed to address what he believed were the central problematics at play for black people in America, to avoid following white America’s lead, especially as it relates to “racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.”

But for so many of us, there seems to be no quarter to which we can retreat, regroup, and reclaim our humanity from the absence of color. And I imagine that’s why the absence has set its sights on you. You have painted vibrant colors. You have given us sanctuary. I’ve known this for a long while; they only know because you moved into the mainstream with your most recent opus, Selma.

Indeed. I conversed with a Twitter friend (@lorrainebaldwin) the other day and we discussed how we both exhaled a giant sigh of relief that Lee Daniels had passed on this film and you had not. Lee is our brother, too, but we are well aware of the concessions he’s apparently eager to make in order to secure a seat at the proverbial table. One Butler is quite enough, thank you very much and we aren’t any longer in the mood for a whitewashed, white-centered alteration of America’s past. In any event, we were glad that you (and Bradford Young!) were doing this and we were anxious to be in the audience.

We were, of course, dazzled by your skill and moved by your politic. We left those theaters knowing we had encountered something rare. Part of what you were doing was continuing the work of civil rights pioneer Ella Baker by demystifying the charismatic patriarch and recalibrating the thrust of movement from an exceptional singular to a grassroots plural, thereby moving it closer to reality. We were surprised that something like this had even made it into the theaters to begin with because of the unapologetic way it made black people primary in America’s story, the way it avoided the pathological approach to Blackness that Hollywood and its audiences are generally so hungry for (even when they don’t realize they’re hungry for it). We were shocked that most white film critics loved it because we were mostly expecting them to fear it. We weren’t shocked, however, about its prospects for Hollywood accolades. We said then, “It’ll get nominated for stuff, but it won’t win — except, maybe, in the music categories. Generally speaking, most white folks regard music as one of the few things black folks are good at. So it’s not threatening to hand over an award for that.”

Some of us were worried that when the Academy failed to nominate you for Best Director, it would somehow negatively impact your career and your genius would remain unconfirmed. However, I believe the responsibility for the success of your career and the validation of your talents rests in our own hands. I believe it’s all about where we choose to direct our resources and support. We shouldn’t allow the Oscars to dictate our investments. Your genius has already been written in stone.

And, quite frankly, history and experience have taught me to side-eye what any overwhelmingly white and male organization endorses. Because no matter how significant and progressive their choices seem on the surface, ultimately, those choices are self-serving. Between the Ku Klux Klan, the U.S. Congress, Wall Street, the Tea Party, and the Academy, social, legal, economic, political, and artistic standards in this country are set by white men for the benefit of white men — period. And, stunningly, at least one of those groups imagines itself as “liberal.” So, as strange as it sounds, I actually regard the Academy’s snubbing of your directorial prowess as a compliment, a blessing, a testament to the humanity of your artistry.

Thus, while I’m a little apprehensive about writing to you in such a public forum, at such a time in ourstory, because I’m but the smallest of voices in comparison to the giants who have already commended you on a job superbly done, I feel compelled to nonetheless. I write to you because I know there is no separation between the little black girls blown to smithereens in Birmingham, Alabama, and the little black girl blown to smithereens in Maiduguri, Borno State. I write to you because there is no difference between We Shall Overcome and #BlackLivesMatter. I write to you now, at this moment, because vibrations from SNCC and the Dream Defenders shake my dungeon. I write because neither Bayard Rustin nor Islan Nettles rest well in the ground.

I write to you because I know that not one more piece of exquisiteness, not one more shred of prowess, pulled, by our very own hands, out of the ether, out of memory, out of blood, out of the jaws of destruction, can go unwitnessed.

You, sister, are at the front lines in a way many of us will never be, can never be. And for this we appreciate you more than you could ever imagine. The war you’re fighting is, perhaps, the most difficult and dangerous of all: the war of the mind. Sadly, we cannot reawaken the body after it has been put to death. There is no way, after all, to bring back Mary Turner, Emmett Till, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, or Tamir Rice — no matter how much we wish we could.

But in regard to a dead mind, the possibility of resurrection is omnipresent. And it comes in the playful intellectualism between Maye and Raven in I Will Follow; in the grace of Ruby’s “good morning” at the end of Middle of Nowhere. It’s in the halo over Venus’ beaded braids in Venus Vs. It’s in Annie Lee Cooper snatching her arm away from people who had no right to touch her in the first place in Selma.

It’s in you.

So I write to you for the named and the unnamed, for those who lived and those who didn’t, for those who made it to the shore and those who rejoice from the dark depths of the ocean because they know that their sacrifices, the dearest of prices they paid, no matter how many centuries might pass, shall not be squandered because of you, Ava, and what you dare to dream. I write to you because you need to know that your love for us is genuinely reciprocated.

Even in the heart of struggle, we take this moment to honor you and thank you. Take care, sister.

Your brother,


Son of Baldwin

Written by

Author of the upcoming novel THE PROPHETS from Putnam Books. Coming in 2021.

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