To the little ones I love,
I wanted to write you a Baldwinian letter, but I am not James Baldwin. I am not that lyrical or experienced with words. You probably do not even know who Baldwin is at your present age. Don’t worry! I’ll give you a mouth full as you grow, but I wanted to share some of the things I have been contemplating over since I’ve been away from you here at Delta State University. You are never far from my mind throughout the day.
As I struggle with new knowledge about race and identity, I often think about how these things apply to you. How I explain to you they’re just as relevant to you now as they have been to people for centuries. But, I remember that you do not like talking about anything other than Mickey Mouse, food, and rap songs and have the attention span of a goldfish. You only ever listen to me when I am telling you to do something or telling you a story. So, I decided to merge these two in hopes that I might share with you some things to get you along in life as you grow as black children in America.
I. Your name is important; never let anyone abuse it or control it.
When I was younger, people would mispronounce my name or make fun of it. I have been called Skyina, Skinny, and strangely Zucchini. At Delta State University, a boy I played basketball with took to calling me JaBaby. At first, I would laugh it off, but over time, I found myself replying to him, “My name is Sykina!” I would say it louder and more sternly every time he greeted me this way, and he would continue to call me JaBaby.
After awhile, I stopped responding to him, and he noticed. He laughed and said he was only playing that I should chill and go with the flow. I ceased communication with him entirely. The younger me might have accepted JaBaby as I once did Zucchini, but I refuse to accept any name other than the one that I have made my own.
Truly, my mother gave me the name Sykina, but it was only as I grew that Sykina started to mean anything to me. The name Zucchini belonged to an overweight, little girl who wanted to +fit in more than anything. Zucchini laughed at herself when people made fun of her. Zucchini had little to no sense of self. Zucchini was my insecurities and desperation personified. Zucchini was a side of myself that longed for friendship.
I wanted so desperately to be a part of the groups of kids around, to be thought of as cool, to feel what it was like to be cool and to not be an outsider. Only age has taught me that outsiders are the coolest people in the world, the most dangerous people in the world, the kindest people in the world, the most enlightened people in the world, the most caged people in the world, the most free people in the world, the most selfish people in the world, and the most selfless people in the world. I have learned that outsiders exist in both the cool crowds and the ones not allowed in those crowds.
I’ve discovered you can be an outsider to yourself and not tap into who you are. I’ve decided that a step to knowing who you are is declaring what you are not. I am not Zucchini or JaBaby. I am not a desperate child longing for friendship. I am not an outsider to myself. I am
Sykina, and only I can define the depth of what that means to me. And only you can define what “you” means to you.
II. Learn to enjoy reading. It may be the only way you discover what it means to be what America calls black.
I opened the pages of a book called Between The World & Me. And like James Baldwin, Ta’Neshi Coates wrote a letter to a black male relative in hopes that it might save their loved one. To think that just a few months ago, I had little to no interest in reading about race amazes me. The fact that a black girl born and raised in Mississippi did not comprehend the significance of being a black child born and raised in Mississippi fantasizes me now. How I got through elementary school and high school without ever reading a novel by a black author other than Mildred D. Taylor―but read countless works by Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, and Shakespeare―is ridiculous to me.
However, the oddest thing to me is not that black literature was scarce in my public education; it is the realization that I cannot remember a single black person encouraging me to seek black literature. Only when I arrived at Delta State University was I challenged to read black literature; a short, Korean professor demanded that I read W.E.B. DuBois’s Souls of Black Folks. An energetic white man lent me a copy of Heavy by black, Mississippi born and raised author Kiese Laymon. A white stranger who worked at the Utah Pride Center expanded my perception of Audre Lorde by giving me a copy of Sister Outsider, and a new acquaintance who wore a hijab handed me the book I am reading now, Between the World and Me.
I’m elaborating on race because I see how it has played a role in what I read in elementary and high school. My school books had Langston Hughes’s “A Broken Winged Bird” and “A Dream Deferred”. These poems were meaningful and aimed to inspire the reader, but they were ambiguous in the sense of who they were written for. They gave no indication of the history of black people to a classroom full of black children. Nowhere in the pages of our textbooks from kindergarten to 12th grade was Langston Hughes’s “Mulatto” or “For My People”; these poems would have at least enlightened us to the fact that our skin color had been devalued and had to be redefined in America. Black authors had been revaluing it for the generations that suffered and redefining it for the generations to come.
I worry that black literature is still scarce in your schools. I fear for you that you will not have a desire to search for it I fear that I am not pushing you all enough to read about our people, our heritage, and our history. I fear that my pushing will make you want to avoid it even more. I fear your mothers and fathers will tell me I am stepping out of my place. I fear most of all that you will grow up ignorant to black suffering, black beauty, and black pride.
III. Your talk does not have to be “proper”, but you must learn “proper” talk to thrive/survive in this country.
On a day in May, you ran ahead of me into Dollar General. You were excited and told me to hurry up. I smiled ear to ear; even at the age of two, you were an adult in spirit! I trodded after you as you ran to the cooler section. Your little finger pointed up at the glass, and you bellowed, “I wanna Whatchable!” I paused and looked to see what it was you could possibly want and what the heck a “whatchable” was.
I knew instantly it was the red-labeled Lunchables you were referring to. You got it that day and giggled and hugged your whatchable all the way home. You were happy and content. I want you to always be that way―comfortable with not knowing the “proper” name for something. I hope you are always confident in your talk.
However, you will age and become educated in this English-speaking America―who will link your talk to your entire person. From the words that echo from your mouth, they will determine your intellectual capacity, your parents’ wealth, your level of education, and, sadly, your place. Their perceptions of you will form before they really know your smarts, your talent, and your character.
I am telling you these things so that you will be ready. So, that you will not come to think that you are dumb if kids pick on you when you say things “improper” and tell you, “You can’t talk right!” So, that you will not think that you suck at writing when a teacher takes points off for you writing like u text.
I pray this world will not make you frown at your own speech. I pray that your headstart days will be full of mixing and mingling with other children who do not talk “proper”. I pray that when you enter this American public educational system as a beautiful, black child who yells proudly “Me name is. . . .!” that you will come out with even more confidence in who you are. I pray education will help you shape your thoughts rather just refine your “improper” talk.
But, know that “proper” is subjective and expected. It references to an American ideal that excludes those who do not talk a certain way, dress a certain way, or look a certain way. My most heartfelt prayer for you is that “proper” will not infect you with prejudices and preconceived notions.