Updated: Oct 16, 2020
Dear Mr. Baldwin,
I first met you when I was twenty-seven, I had recently returned to our nation with much reservation. Similar to you, I did not miss much about the United States; not the individualist culture nor the ethnocentric values that governed the way we learned about the world around us. Coming off the heels of living nearly three years in Rwanda and traveling eastern and southern Africa, I accomplished things I had at one point only dreamed about. For those years, everywhere I went—the bank, the dentist, school, restaurants, and shopping complexes, I was among black people. This was a stark difference from growing up in Minnesota where a professor in college once walked up to me before class and pulled my braids asking if my new hairstyle was “a hat.” Before leaving the States, there was an insurgence of recorded police brutality. The violence was no longer hidden, and it was overwhelming. So, Mr. Baldwin, to travel where I was among the majority was much needed self-care. I viewed my exit as a self-imposed exile from the United States. I needed distance from the threat of danger to accomplish what I had told myself long ago I would do. Building a life in a new country was not easy, I was still treated as a foreigner, but I never felt I was in danger. That was temporary.
Upon re-entering our republic, I felt the heat of danger return to my body. I was angry. I was angry and lost when Raoul Peck introduced me to you through I Am Not Your Negro. Mr. Baldwin, I felt we were kindred spirits, conversing without the limitations of time and space. I met you when I felt I was being pulled in a multitude of directions and unlike me, I stayed still. Maybe I knew you would meet me where I was at. Watching Peck’s masterpiece, in a matter of ninety minutes, we became friends. Your words, your story stayed with me. I felt a deep connection to your upbringing in the church, to your longing to travel far and wide, to your need to witness. I felt a deep connection as to how you used your voice as currency. Your words gave me permission to use my voice and speak about my fears. I had to continue our conversation. Reading The Fire Next Time allowed our dialogue to continue and it revealed to me how intertwined our journeys were. I marveled at your language, knowing I would pack your words wherever I travelled, unfolding them in every home and using your testimony as fuel when my spirit was low. I cried watching you speak with such vulnerability of what it means to have a black body in this country. I suddenly stopped feeling as though my feelings were “too much.” Mr. Baldwin, our lives are still in constant threat of danger. Our children are still being failed by teachers, schools, and the education system. Our people are still being paid less, denied opportunities, and murdered by police officers. The white people we call neighbors and friends are still apathetic to our condition and it is confusing. It’s confusing to see the systems working the way they were designed to, yet still needing to convince people around me of the dire need of a systematic change. It confused me that change was taking so very long. I was confused and angry because turning my pain into purpose wasn’t enough.
I say this with the full awareness of what a privilege it is to get older but when I turned twenty-nine, I was sad. So many have died before their time: Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Jones. Mr. Baldwin, when Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evans died, did you feel guilty for being alive? I wished, with all my heart, they were still with their families. It was impossible for me to see each death recorded and televised and not feel despair. I turned to writing, organizing, channeling your spirit to turn the pain into purpose. But at some point, my mind couldn’t feel it any longer. My brain could not reach the sadness. It was as if I had taken the pain and despair and placed it into a box, shoving that box into a dusty corner. All the vigor I once had caused my cup to runneth over. So much so, that it spilled onto the table, then trickled to the floor. Someone came along and mopped up the mess, and squeezing the despair into a bucket, poured it down the drain. I felt distant to the pain. I knew I needed something other than pain to find my purpose within. I needed more. I was deep in a hole, completely consumed by fear. Every time I passed a police car, my body would tense with anxiety. I saw the ignorant bliss in which white Americans lived their daily life and wondered, “How do they do it?” I saw black people living their full life and wondered, “How do they not feel the weight of the world on their shoulders?” How do I do that as well? How do I find more than pain?
Mr. Baldwin, this year I will turn thirty, and I have come to accept the simplest yet most difficult of all lessons: two things can be true. All my life, I have searched for balance. I thought balance meant all good things were in perfect alignment with one another, but now I’m realizing it means accepting life’s complexities and embracing the good along with the bad. Joy and pain can co-exist, and I must accept the pain, examine the reality of all that causes it but recognize the need to move on. It is important to accept my emotions and recognize the spectrum that is life but also knowing that my feelings, my sorrow is temporary. I must trust time. Trusting time does not imply passively letting it pass you by; trusting time, to me, means doing the work, staying patient, and finding a way to enjoy the journey. I choose to enjoy my journey by choosing joy, every day. By choosing joy, I’m not ignoring what is wrong with the world, I’m choosing to focus on what I can control. Trusting time has taught me that America is dangerous for black people but what is also dangerous is allowing the threat of violence to restrict me from accessing my power. Two things can be true: I can acknowledge the reality that being in a black body presents struggles and challenges that forces me to be twice as good as my white counterpart, I can acknowledge that this reality makes me angry and I will voice my frustrations but I can also choose to enjoy my journey because I deserve happiness.
Mr. Baldwin, I am choosing to enjoy this journey through progressively bettering myself through reflection and self-discovery. I am married, travelling the world, and living with purpose. There is space to celebrate all of those privileges while acknowledging this world needs changing without letting that truth consume me. So, I will practice choosing joy by discovering parts of myself that I have ignored up until now. I want to explore my experiences through a journey of reflection as a means to rebuild self-image and self-worth. I want to unearth parts of me that were buried by the exhaustion and despair and constant need to validate my existence. I want to heal as I age. I will trust that change will come because I play a role in the solution. Choosing hope over fear is what has led me to my current project: Becoming 30.
When I was a little girl, I dreamt about turning thirty. All around me, I saw women age with grace, poise, and confidence, and that translated to me never harboring that fear of getting older. When I was thirteen and awkward, I envisioned my thirty-year-old self: interesting, powerful and assured. I also planned, by thirty, I would have The Formula. The Formula is all the answers to the world’s greatest injustices, and I would fly around the world, like a superhero, solving all the problems. Now, at twenty-nine, I realize life doesn’t work like that. This idealistic notion of a magical age allowing you to become everything you want was a bit misplaced. I won’t suddenly wake up more assured on my thirtieth birthday than the day before and I can’t solve all the world’s problems! Why did I put so much pressure on myself, Mr. Baldwin? I know now that I am well on my way to becoming what my thirteen-year-old-self imagined. I have had an incredible life and I am blessed by opportunities and covered in love. Reflecting on all that I have been through, recognizing my strengths, and continuously striving toward my goals is what excites me for my future. I do not have all the answers, but I can proudly say I have worked to reduce harm against women and girls, immigrants, and other vulnerable populations.
Becoming 30 is about documenting as I reflect on my twenties and embracing my excitement for what is in store for my future. This project will help me to embrace this transition as I work intentionally to become my most certain self. Mr. Baldwin, you have taught me an innumerable number of truths. What I hold close to my heart is our mission to testify. Becoming 30 is my testimony.