“Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis, in care of the Silent Majority”
Anna Deavere Smith: This 1970 letter by acclaimed author James Baldwin is addressed to “My Sister: Miss Angela Davis, [care of] The Silent Majority.” Davis, a professor and activist, faced serious criminal charges that were seen by many as trumped up. Sympathizers like Baldwin saw her as unjustly targeted for her political views, and for being, as he put it in this draft, “a dangerously gifted black teacher.” Though addressed to Davis, Baldwin’s letter, later published in the New York Review of Books, was intended for a larger audience.
Eddie Glaude, Jr., is Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University.
Eddie Glaude, Jr.: This letter is for us. I think he was writing it for us: America, this place that refuses to see itself for what it is.
Anna Deavere Smith: In this early draft, one can almost sense Baldwin’s frustration, his bitter disappointment with the American experiment, and his sense of urgency as he works through his own complex feelings about the Civil Rights Movement.
Eddie Glaude, Jr.: He’s grappling with the assassination of Dr. King. He’s trying to understand the anger, trying to give voice, to find a language for the anger of this younger generation. So, to stand in relation to that piece of paper, those pieces of paper, to see what was left out and what was edited and the choices he made, right, is in some ways to come close, as close as one can, to possessing history.
Anna Deavere Smith: Davis was ultimately acquitted of all charges by a predominantly white jury. But Baldwin’s broader message remains relevant today.
Eddie Glaude, Jr.: He was, in some ways, foreshadowing that there was a slippery slope; that American democracy wasn’t guaranteed; that we could lose this thing.
That it could easily slide into something much darker by our simple choices and our complicity and, more importantly, our silence.
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Dr. Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor and chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University.
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