I’ve started this letter five times and deleted it five times. Even though we’ve never met I’ve known you all my life. I learned you existed from a letter addressed to someone else. A few months ago, my mom told me you wanted to meet me along with my wife and son. I was surprised. I hear we have some things in common. You love Laphraoig and, like me, tend to overindulge in it. You are slow to recant an opinion. You’re an avid reader of political books, although I imagine our choices here likely differ. But I struggle to understand what meeting you would accomplish. In an earlier draft of this letter, I wrote that I forgave you. But I realized that I was writing what people want to hear in instances like this, not what I actually feel. How do you forgive a forty-year absence?
Although I often want to think of you as a bad person, I don’t. I think of you as a pretty average white man, perhaps a little more openly committed to the myth and illusion of whiteness. In truth, I am angry at what you, and your absence, have represented in my life.
I was four when your letter arrived. My mother was in our small kitchen in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, standing at the counter, crying. I panicked. Seeing your mother cry always rocks you as a child, but for me, it was a physiological danger. We had recently fled the life-threatening violence of my biological father. I associated my mother crying with seeing her get hit or choked or thrown. Sometimes, seeing her cry caused asthma-inducing flashbacks. These attacks were so intense that I was hospitalized repeatedly throughout my childhood. In this case, I went to my mother, asked why she was crying, and tried, with four-year-old clumsiness, to comfort her. My mom was young and inexperienced and told me a lot of things kids should be sheltered from. She told me the letter said my white grandfather refused to meet me—because I’m black. At four, you aren’t supposed to know why your white grandfather hates you. No child should ever have to face that reality.
After my mom told me you wanted to finally meet, I asked her about that letter from 1982. She told me she’d burned it, but wished she hadn’t. In short, the letter said you disapproved of my mother dating my stepfather, who is also black. You knew we were poor; you offered to help. But the help was conditioned on my mother leaving him. Because the letter is ash, I’m not sure what you expected her to do with your half-breed grandchildren. But that letter meant you would rather I not live. Not the actually existing four-year-old me that was watching my mother cry, but your idea of me. You thought I was less than human, dysgenic, non-white.
I would be lying if I said your rejection didn’t influence me. Much of my life has been spent trying to understand how something as trivial as your whiteness could justify the abandonment of family. I couldn’t have known at four, but in my twenties, James Baldwin taught me that this rejection meant more about you. Baldwin also taught me that the “really terrible thing” was that one day I would have to accept you. This letter is me listening to Baldwin.
Your absence taught me, too. It showed me that whiteness is a harsh, brutal, unforgiving force. Whiteness is full of power and dread for its targets. But the powerful are always more fearful, as they have more to lose. Your absence taught me that whiteness has boundaries so fragile, so tenuous, that two little mixed-race kids could threaten your claim. Your belief in whiteness was more important than family. The arrogance encapsulated the letter you sent my mother is really the essence of what it means to be white: the unflinching and unfounded certainty of superiority. You didn’t intend, I’m sure, to teach me this. And it wasn’t a lesson I was eager to learn. But you started teaching me at a young age.
As you know, my step-grandfather passed this past year. That qualifier—step—has never been more inappropriate than in his case. My grandfather’s life, and his care for my brother and me, is a repudiation of every abhorrent caricature of black family life in this country. At the end of the Great Migration he fled the state-sanctioned racial terrorism of Alabama for Pittsburgh’s Black Belt. He was, at the least, a proud Alpha, father, principal, and mentor. When we met my grandfather, around the time we received your letter, he did what generations of black families have done and what most white families haven’t: he adopted and raised us. This was a considerable risk. Here was a poor white woman with two mixed kids, fleeing domestic violence, vying for his son. But for my grandfather the only fact that ever mattered was that we were his grandchildren. Without ever questioning it, he moved us into a trailer next to his house. It was there, in his library, that I discovered The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Native Son, and Invisible Man—works that inspire and nourish still.
I bring up my grandfather not to point out what you’ve missed. Your interest in meeting me implies you have at least some understanding and regret. Rather, I want to highlight something that black people have always known. Race is a sham. A hustle. A joke. White people are fooled by this joke, and in allowing themselves to be fooled, lessen their humanity. You abandoned me in a country that has done everything it could to destroy us, but destroyed a piece of yourself instead.
When I tell white people about your letter, they tend to get self-righteous. Smugly assured that they would never be so crass as to cut off their own kin; they roll with easy condemnation. “I’m one of the good ones,” they think. But America is designed so that most whites are never confronted with the possibility of intermarriage or the reality of black grandchildren. They live in white enclaves, are educated in white schools, pray in white churches, and sleep with white partners comfortably ignorant of the looting, violence, murder and abandonment that made those white enclaves. It is this general blindness, a condition of unenlightened whiteness, that gives these words life: I don’t think of you as a bad person. But I also don’t know where things go from here.
I can see people wondering why I would make something this personal public. But white abandonment has always been public. As I write this, Baltimore is burning with the rage of abandonment. It is not a perfect analogy for your absence, but white America has turned its back on its black family for decades—refusing to provide basic services while pillaging the public purse. Now, reaping the harvest they’ve sown, white America looks on—and blames the kids throwing rocks, not the cops killing black people. But like you and I, black and white America are bound together from the start. White America just refuses to take responsibility for both the white and black children they have helped to create.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]