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 300-2000 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.
A Letter to My Son On His Sixth Birthday,
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. The performance 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 sense of dread? You are always bringing home words, songs and habits (good and bad) from school. And really, shouldn’t every six-year-old have the right to stand among loved ones and declare with the confidence of the chosen: “I am the special one!”
It’s natural to live for a time in the embrace of this misconception. Kids learn better soon enough.
But that’s not true, is it? Watching Judge Kavanaugh on television last week, I knew that it was not true. Not all children learn better. There, on the television I saw what happens when a privileged white boy, like you, grows up believing he is the special one.
Such a boy grows into a man who views other people as mere allies or obstacles to a success measured in trophies, power and popularity; a man who remains - at seventeen, twenty, forty, fifty - as deluded about his own relative worth as you, age six. A petulant man clinging to the lie that he earned the advantages he was born into, and that people not born with the same advantages—or the same religion, ethnicity, nationality or gender - deserve less regard.
I don’t wish for you a life of such spiteful delusion. Don’t cling to the myth of your own exceptionalism. You are a special one, that’s true. You will always be my special one.
But you are not the special one.
My son, 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. He's only six. A special, my special, the special one. He doesn’t understand the difference.”
But you have long understood more than we give you credit for. At three you knew the difference between dozens of wooden train engines. At four you knew your letters and the sounds they make. 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 were old enough to read these words you no longer needed them. This is 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.