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A Commencement Speech for Black Youth: James Baldwin’s “A Letter to My Nephew”

“…This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that for the heart of the matter is here and the crux of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits to your ambition were thus expected to be settled. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence. You were expected to make peace with mediocrity…” – James Baldwin, A Letter to My Nephew

I’ve been watching commencement speeches for fun lately. I still have one more year before I officially graduate into this turbulent economy myself, but it’s always nice to take a brain break and hear some good ol’ fashioned inspirational words. There’s also been some especially good ones this year. Everyone from Oprah to Glee’s Jane Lynch have been spouting speeches. They all have similar themes, basically reminding us to slow down and appreciate the moments we’re in, and in some way or another not to be afraid of failure, or to take risks. It’s funny how these celebs all seem to have the same sorts of advice. Maybe it adds a little truth to them?

Nevertheless, I began wondering what type of commencement speech would Black youth particularly need? Not because one must be tailored to them, but rather because their trajectory into the world will admittedly offer some different obstacles than their white counterparts.  Universality cannot always be sufficient for us. Thus I began thinking—where’s the commencement speech for Black youth?  Immediately, my mind crept towards a powerful letter written by the famous African-American author James Baldwin. In this letter, he’s writing to his nephew about the pitfalls of being a young black male growing up in America. It’s a powerful piece, and is absolutely saturated with soul and heart. In it’s own way, it becomes a preparatory commencement speech all its own. And I would like to celebrate it. I could say more, but the piece speaks profoundly for itself.

Above was an excerpt: You can read the full letter here.

Congratulations to all the 2012 graduates!


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