A Letter to my Nieces & Nephews on Ella Baker’s Birthday

Photo Credit:  NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

My loves,

One of the greatest Black women poets of our time, Lucille Clifton, is not frequently taught in schools — or at least not taught enough. Her poem, song at midnight, contains a line you may have seen on the internet, in part. We like to circulate it among ourselves as a clarion call, a prayer, a balm & mantra, especially the last lines, but here is the second part of it, from The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010, edited by Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser:

born into babylon

both nonwhite and woman

what did i see to be except myself?

i made it up

here on this bridge between

starshine and clay,

my one hand holding tight

my other hand; come celebrate

with me that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed.

The epigraph to this poem is from a Sonia Sanchez poem: “…do not send me out among strangers.”

Black women’s lives, for so long, were shaped around survival, and it had always been so, it’s true. In The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales told by Virginia Hamilton, in the introduction, though, I was reminded of something else.

“It is amazing,” she writes, “that the former Africans could ever smile and laugh, let alone make up riddles and songs and jokes and tell tales. As slaves, they were forced to live without citizenship, without rights, as property – like horses and cows – belonging to someone else. But no amount of hard labor and suffering could suppress their powers of imagination.”


We were built to survive, to be more than conquerors. And I hope, by the time you arrive into old age — I pray, every day, that you will —  there will be more possibilities. That in your future Black Girl Magic & Black Boy Joy – a phrases used as shorthand to discuss our flair, style, resourcefulness & resilience; our fortitude & swag; the imprint of whatever era we’re rocking that day or moment – you will also make space for your imagination even as others try to impinge on it. For my nieces, especially, that you will  allow joy & beauty to be your armor, that you will allow room for complexity of a woman’s being that allows you to be as multibinary in as many ways as you desire in how you define yourself & your emotions, but especially your happiness.

When I was the age you are now, I thought happiness, peace & joy were the inheritances of other people. Privileges that came with whiteness or money. Most stories – if not all – I read about Black people & especially Black girls, especially Black women, were mired in pain.

To bloom was to tolerate, be victimized. To have agency was to be a target. To be belittled, even by those who looked like kin, sometimes especially your own folks. Who did you think you were, said through gritted teeth.

We became what we produced. We became what we looked like. We were what we had to offer or had on offer. Then, people wondered, seriously, how we burnt out like shooting stars against the black night that is the endless pit of expectation.

Joy, the fictive kin of peace, it turns out, is not as political as pain &  it’s not as sexy to some, but I would offer that it can be.


The 1980s to me, were epic because when I had glimpses of possibility, of what creative expression could offer – freedom through art, usually in the form of music & dance (though, admittedly, your auntie is not particularly good at dancing) – I felt a spark of recognition. We talk about representation being a thing now & things are indeed starting to change. If you decide you want to love & grow a family of your own, I hope you will note this as a non-thing completely &  count this entire passage as being slightly irrelevant (it would actually bring me joy).

My icons living then were Michael & Janet Jackson & Whitney Houston because they were such good entertainers.

Whatever they were going through or thinking, we didn’t have access to, & we couldn’t possibly know the contours of, but when you saw them on a stage, via television, you watched magic & grace. Appointment TV, we called it. You saw the epitome of your humanity unfolding. You could have control, you could have patience, the future — any future — you could have command of yourself & your image.

The same went, for me, for Salt N Pepa & Queen Latifah. They were not, then, as widely known or as widely praised because they were women who rapped. They were outside of the margins of respectability then – they were being “bad” girls, though not quite bad enough to roll with the nasty chicks who followed, I guess.

They are, as you are, part of a continuum of Black expression and possibility that stretches back. It stretches back to Ida Forsyne, Queen of the Cakewalk, who invented a kind of jazz dancing over in Russia in the 1940s and could do a cartwheel well into her 60s  as she did when she was profiled by The New Yorker in 1951) & of being self-possessed entertainers trying to channel the happiness of their people.

Ella Josephine Baker’s birthday is today & because of her name, she made me think about the importance of our people, & our peace, about the future, & about you, because it’s a cold season in more than one way, but also a season of light & gifts. Her birthday made me think of you because of how your generation defies easy categorization in multiple ways including one fascinating one that will be important to remember for the rest of your lives.

I learned about Ella Baker through hearing others call her name, through our oral tradition. When your sisters & brothers & cousins speak the name of your ancestors, again & again, remember & pay attention. Follow along &  look them up to go after them. See what they have for you, preferably on paper if you can, since it was Fast Company, after all, that reminded me that the Internet was originally a project designed by the Department of Defense to surveil Vietnam War protesters.

In any event, I just happened to be writing a lot this year about Black women & politics because of the midterms that made Letitia James New York’s first Black woman Attorney General, and first Black woman – almost exactly 50 years since Shirley Chisholm was elected to State senate.

The first thing our sisters always say about Ella Baker is that she liked to ask folks, “Who are your people?” when she first met them. And I mention this because I entered this year as I have entered many in my life, associating my self worth & dignity, my value & joy with the notion that my so-called people were within structures or institutions (an appropriately clinical word) that paid me a living wage & benefits which, to my mind, offered me a kind of security that meant they were also extending care & regard.

It took me too many decades to follow her life where it leads & led, to understand the shape & contours of why no one ever had one title for her, one short way of describing her, why her fuller story had been missing from so many histories.

I made time to tell you this because what I want you to know most, in the spirit of joy, of resisting oppression, the architecture of a life that was augmented & nourished —  an incredible life that does not just emerge — this question that largely defines her for most people is actually just one part of a multifaceted humanity. Her extraordinary work is in the historical record, yes, but she defied convention in many other ways, including by refusing to take her husband’s last name & by framing her identity not around him, but around her political & social obligations – & letting other people decide if they would mind her business in their free time or mind their own.

This, too – this, especially – can be a woman’s joy, a woman’s peace & happiness. It does not have to be all the traditional things we have confined women to & in for years while saying we were being disruptive. She would have been the one reminding us that we were the ones we’ve been waiting for. She’d already done it in 1948, then again in 1958 & countless times before & after.

I hope that I’m not the first to share with you that Ella Baker was the strategic visionary behind the civil rights Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee after being snubbed by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – which, yes, was led by the great Martin Luther King Jr. The SCLC back then, however, was not ready for a Black woman who was a noncleric & egalitarian who didn’t think that a movement with a top down patriarchal structure was sustainable for extending equality long term.

“Strong people don’t need strong leaders,” is another thing Ella Baker liked to say, though unsurprisingly, you don’t hear folks say that as much as the other quote, because, well, existing hierarchies & privileges have a way of needing to reinforce themselves until they’re destroyed.

They don’t know they are inherently self-destructive, but Ella knew.

She knew, & tried to tell them, first in 1948, again in 1958, and probably some more, that the most effective grassroots strategy in their movement would belong to and depend on youth & the poor, & probably women.

It was only in 2018, the year I’m writing this, after spending the summer in Norfolk, Virginia, where she was born on December 13th, that I finally understood: she was the quintessential insider-outsider, as Dr. Ransby described her. Baker was involved with more than three dozen organizations & coalitions over the course of her life & left an indelible mark on the twentieth century – particularly African American history, especially during the civil rights movement.

She was the daughter of Blake & Georgianna Ross Baker, both educated children of former slaves. Though she was born in Norfolk, she grew up in Littleton, North Carolina, shaped by the mores of Southern culture & the defiance of her people.

Her father worked as a waiter on a steamship for a time that traveled between Norfolk & D.C. before they moved to North Carolina; her mother was a schoolteacher who was very involved in the Baptist Missionary Society. It was her mother’s involvement in the church that Ella credited with setting her on a political path. Her maternal grandfather, Mitchell Ross, was proud & defiant – she loved him dearly – & he had been a slave in North Carolina. When he got free, he purchased the land that he had once worked & became a supporter of black suffrage & equal rights. Her grandmother, Josephine Elizabeth, had chosen Mitchell over the man her white mistress had selected for her as a husband.

Looking at her people, you can see how she became the force that she was in the world, how she would have moved, & it offers instruction for you, too.

She had a myriad of relationships within & outside of movements & coalitions. She would not rigidly align herself with institutions for long because while stability & security in the form of money & benefits can be nice, these also come with costs. These costs, for Black women who seek joy & peace, can be far greater than we can reckon with if they are in conflict with us as abolitionists of the spirit, of the mind & heart, which I think, on some level, all Black women — all Black people — are in one way or another. This may be one reason we have such difficulty in white patriarchal constructs which ask us to put our lights under bowls or at the very least dim them so they don’t shine so damn bright.

I did not know, before Ella Baker’s lived example, it was possible to live outside of a system & thrive, to build a legacy this way, to build a rich, multiracial network & simultaneously commit to struggle & coalition while also committing to self, to allegiance to one’s own elegance & grace & style. What I have learned is that while it is possible, it is not without its extraordinary challenges or weariness. For this, you will need joy. You will need safe harbors of peace. You will need to know, with abundant clarity, who your people are, at all times.

In my time growing up, there were not enough models of Black women who did not follow a path set out for them some type of way, but built their own, behind the scenes & bade others to come follow closely, if they were smart.

But I am hopeful you will have many models, because even at this age, I found Ms. Ella Baker, who was born & died on the same day, some eighty-three years apart, on December 13th. There’s such beautiful poetry, too, in this. It’s in God’s hands, when we come & when we go, I believe that. But I do wonder how much the way she led her life had to do with how round the edges of that look from here.



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