A Letter To My Nephew On Being Black In A Broken World

By Willie Burnley Jr.

Elijah, I love you and therefore I don’t want you to be afraid of love.

Dear Elijah,

You were born into a world wholly unworthy of you.

That this has been true for all of your ancestors doesn’t remove the unique sting of having to say this to someone so young. There is something particularly painful in recognizing that the emerging consciousness in this world may not be able to save you from the ensnarement, plunder, and death that our system is built on.

Although you seem so pure to me now at the age of 5, I fear you have already been poisoned. Nephew, I’ve already learned that I cannot save you from your father, from this world, perhaps even from myself — but I must write to you now because the things I say are true and the truth is all that I can give you in love. This world is broken. It has been destroyed. In one way or another, confronting this devastation will be the struggle of your time, just as it has been mine. And, just like me, you will inherit the labor of burning this poisonous tree to its roots. To that end, I offer you the fruit of my eyes.

I keep seeing your face, which is also the face of your father as much as it was my face when I was your age. We three share this, though you have brighter eyes than either of us. Perhaps that is one star-drop in the constellation of reasons why I fear so much for you. Most strongly I pray — in as atheistic a way as possible — that you do not inherit your father’s hands, calloused and scarred as they are from a life of survival in jails, prisons, and the streets. I pray that his words of manhood do not corrupt you and induct you into the violent cults of misogyny and homophobia. It is in these dark places that I fear you will lose the brightness in your eyes.

The world has been destroyed. In one way or another, confronting this devastation will be the struggle of your time, just as it has been mine.

I’m sure you will have to fight; your prettiness almost guarantees this, to say nothing of your Blackness. I won’t tell you that this is wrong. You were born into a society where violence is ubiquitous, in which it swallows the impoverished, the racialized, the feminized, and all who are othered in a swaddle of death.

I already see you replicating the violence you’ve witnessed on television and video games, in your own childish way, ready to punch your way out of any problem you have. Instinctually, too, you know that violence can arise out of words. I remember this when you tried to hurt me by saying that I’m not your friend anymore. It seems only a matter of time before you learn what it means to be called a n***** and feel for yourself the full weight of words. Your father and I can teach you how to fight, but we cannot protect you.

But, knowing your father as I do, I fear he will sanction your use of this violence against the same others you should find solidarity with: namely women and people who’ve explored sexualities and genders outside of the heterosexist, cissexist framework. We don’t know yet who you could be. For all we know, you may be gay, bisexual, trans, or something totally unheard of to me. Your father ostensibly doesn’t see how the violence waged against them in response to their identities is also violence against you — or how it will make you share the same face as your oppressors.

This fervent rage of manhood is meant to trick you into distancing the human family from itself based on arbitrary lines, but don’t think that anyone is so far removed from you. Did you know, Elijah, that you have an incarcerated great-aunt who is trans? I want you to not only know these secrets, but also to fully comprehend why they were kept secret. Your great-aunt’s imprisonment and liberation are tied up in your own.

I did not know these things until I was much older than you are now. At your age, I’d already demonstrated the ignorant idea that homosexuality was unnatural. Precisely where I learned this I’m unsure. But, still, later I loved my best friend Zaire. His father was like a second father, complete with a more demonstrable love for me than my own father could muster. Thus I took great joy in walking the two blocks to Zaire’s apartment from my home when I was 5 years old, and spending days running down alleys with him or watching R-rated movies on his couch. We were inseparable. Zaire and I took baths together. We slept in the same bed, if necessary. It was only years later that this type of intimacy was sexualized and stolen from me.

Elijah, if capitalism and white supremacy stole my tongue, eyes, and ears, patriarchy stole my hands. It robbed me of the joys that being able to touch — to simply reach out and touch or hold — other men could have offered. It made this touch something that was taboo and ugly. It made the idea of physical intimacy with men a part of myself that I should fear and police. I spent years chasing any thought of this kind of intimacy, platonic or otherwise, from my head. But what of the damage done by running from those parts of myself? How can anyone know themselves if they refuse to acknowledge the aspects of themselves that make them uncomfortable? This is a question I fear you may never ask yourself if you become too comfortable in that wholly unnatural state of compulsive heterosexuality. The privilege it will bestow upon you is nothing more than a well-decorated cage whose bars will trap you.

The patriarchy robbed me of the joys that being able to touch — to simply reach out and touch or hold — other men could have offered.

Elijah, I love you and therefore I don’t want you to be afraid of love. I don’t want you to be afraid of the knowledge and heartbreak that comes from those whom you love or who love you. Do not give that up for the Dream of Being a Man. Such a condition lives in a perpetual state of coerced amnesia, ignorant of the whole human spirit, cutting away all things feminized with viciousness. I was pressured into this place, as I’m sure your father was, too. Our lifework is its abolition, which is nothing short of the abolition of coercion itself.

Hetero-patriarchal disregard, capitalistic exploitation, white supremacist plunder, these are the soils your nation took root in. And from this poisonous tree grew poisonous fruit. So many of us have grown accustomed to poverty and misaligned ourselves as those who would intend to be rich. As I articulate these things to you, I’m learning as much as I’m unlearning. When I speak to you kindly, the water of my tongue is healing me. But not even I know what challenges await you in the future, and I would not have your consciousness shackled to mine.

I don’t want to hold you back.

You must feed your eyes with the wisdom to see beyond what surrounds you and into the foundational heart of all things. As bleak as the world may be, the solutions we seek are already taking shape within and around us. Throughout my life I’ve searched for these answers in literature and politics. In college, I added sociology to this list. The greatest gift that sociology has ever given me was the knowledge that no feeling, no behavior, no thought even, exists in isolation. You are never alone. No matter how strange you feel you are, there is someone who shares in that strangeness. Find them. Laugh with them. Love them. Hate is for oppressive ideologies and behaviors. Love is for people. Love is for yourself.

I don’t know where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing when you can understand these things, but I hope I will still be with you. I want to see you grow into the best person you can be. I love you as if you were my own child. If I’m no longer around, know that this remains just as true and that these are a few of the many fruits I leave behind for you. Eat heartily and chew thoughtfully.

Your uncle,

Willie

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