The Open Letters project was inspired by James Baldwin’s use of this unique epistolary form to respond with intimacy and passion to experiences and events that blur the line between the personal and the political.
To submit your own Open Letter to be considered for publication on the site, email 500-1000 words to: email@example.com. The letters can be on any topic. Feel free to use humor. Intelligent rants are welcome, too. I only ask that you write to someone you care for (feel free to change their names), and that you write with honesty, empathy and passion.
Click Here to read two of Baldwin's letters: “Open Letter to My Sister Angela Davis” and “Open Letter to my Nephew.” Also see Ta-Nehisi Coates' book, Between the World and Me and Claudia Rankine's call for open letters in The Rumpus.
Special One: An Open Letter to My Four-Year-Old Son
by Mary Volmer
The other day, romping through the living room, stuffed kitty under one arm, you stopped and raising your little chin like Nero, declared: “I am the special one!” Floppy blond hair, brown eyes wide. A pint sized superhero, minus the cape. It should have been funny. It was funny. Your dad and I both laughed.
Why, then, do I now feel this tightness in my chest? Why this confusion of possessiveness and misgiving? Why this sense of dread? You are always bringing home words, songs and habits (good and bad) from preschool. And really, shouldn’t every four-year-old of every race, religion, ethnicity, and gender have the divine right to stand among loved ones and declare with the confidence of the chosen: “I am the special one!” It’s natural, glorious in fact, to live for a time in the embrace of this misconception. You will learn better soon enough.
But that’s not true, is it? Not all children are forced to learn better, or soon enough. And that’s what’s bothering me, Joe. Why I’m still awake, trying to find the right words for this truth: you are a special one. You will always be my special one. But, Joe, you are not the special one.
This one word makes a great difference. I’ll try to explain.
Your dad and I are from different countries, but we both speak English. We are both white. You, too, are white. A white boy, born into a middle-class home, to educated parents. Our lifestyle is not extravagant—quite the contrary—but your dad and I have chosen this modest way of living, and if we wanted we could choose another. This choice is a privilege, Joe. Very likely, you will attend a suburban public school in a district subsidized by other well-earning, educated parents, also mostly white. And every single one of those boys and girls in your classes—from preschool on, apparently—will be told they, too, are exceptional. Must be exceptional. The special one. At all cost. At any cost.
Not true, Joe! This is a lie and a dangerous one. This is the same lie that put the Orange Man in the White House. It is a lie that would have you view other people as mere allies or obstacles to a success measured in trophies, power and popularity. It is a lie that requires otherwise good people to remain - at thirty, forty, sixty - as deluded about their own relative worth as you at age four. It requires them to believe they earned the advantages they were born into, and that those not born with the same advantages—or the same religion, ethnicity, nationality or gender - deserve less regard. They are good people, Joe, good citizens anyway. They love their kids, subscribe to the right magazines and support good causes. Yet in the privacy of their own homes, they turn the channel rather than witness another brown mother weeping over another dead son.
You cannot look away, Joe, or conflate terrorist with refugee, or place profit before human cost without becoming complicit in other people’s suffering. This is a condition of your humanity. Don’t strive for glory, money, power, or prestige at the cost of other people. Don’t cling to the myth of your own exceptionalism. True fulfillment, happiness and spiritual wellbeing are not found on podiums, in fancy cars, board rooms or prestigious universities. These gifts are discovered when you love freely, listen well, and give of yourself generously. They are outgrowths of our common humanity, which cannot be fully embraced if you hold yourself apart from, or above other people.
Now, I have been known to overthink, well, everything. I hear the voices of my peers and they say, “Good God, Mary. Joe is only four. A special, my special, the special one. He doesn’t understand the difference.”
But you understand more than we give you credit for, don’t you? You know the differences between dozens of wooden train engines. You know your letters and the sounds they make and how to write your name. Since very young you read tones of voice, expressions, postures. You know how to make me mad and to laugh. You correct me if I fudge a single word in your favorite books. You know, because we have taught you, how to say please and thank you. You know it’s wrong to hit and lie and cheat, though you may not understand why. And conscious or not of the differences between articles you did say “the” special one. Conscious or not, you may already have begun to internalize and integrate this lie in the way you see the world and your place within it.
And that scares me. That’s why I’m writing. Not to diminish you or to strip you of childish fantasy. I write to make you aware of the fantasy, and to tell you that your worth does not depend on other people being worth less than you. Strive to be one of, not one above. Learn to serve others in humble and deliberate ways. Accept help with gratitude and grace, and reject the notion that your race, religion, sexuality, or gender entitles you to anything more than a place at the table, with everyone else.
This is my hope for you as I write, the screen aglow in the stark clarity of night. I slip into your room to tuck you in and watch you sleep, your face alive with dreams. What a beautiful thing if by the time you are old enough to read these words you no longer needed them. Even in the wake of recent events, Joe, this remains my hope, one I will act upon to help you grow into a humble man of high purpose and empathy. For your own happiness and wellbeing, and for the good of others.