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  • What follows is a letter that I wrote to my brother Chico during the summer of 1987. At the time he was a man in his mid-thirties, but he looked like a man in his sixties. For a while, I had lost track of him. His Philadelphia row home had become an abandoned shell. The following letter was never mailed:

    Dear Chico, I have a lot to say, but little time to say it. I hope that you are well, but I fear that you are not. Please don't be offended at my sharp tone, but I feel the time has come to be clear and to the point.

    Are you still a drug addict?

    Julianne died. Who was she? I suppose in matters concerning the world she was a “nobody”. She had no particular claim to fame, no accomplishments worth mentioning in the eyes of the world. Just a piece of black flesh that lived, loved and wanted to be loved in an anti-black society.

    Julianne died. Who was she? She was the mother of two little girls. She was a young woman that could not cope. She herself was barely a child surviving in New York City. She was a person that never, never got a decent chance in life.

    Julianne is dead. Cold. Unmoving. Who was she? A crack addict? Yes. A prostitute? Perhaps, no one really wants to know. Who was she? She was my wife's cousin. She was a slender attractive woman that had simple wants. She was a woman with milk chocolate skin and tight curly hair. She was a misplaced African beauty that no one would dance with. She was a person with whom I shared belly laughs and quiet smiles.

    Forgive my flair for the dramatic. I am crying.

    I loved Julianne the way I love all my people. My love of Black people is a deep love and within that love is anger and rage. (Anger against injustice. Rage against racism.) Within my love for Black people is fear and suspicion. (Fear of our future. Suspicion of our motives.) Within my love for Black people is hope and pride. (Hope for our children. And pride in our accomplishments.)


    Are you still a drug addict?

    The last time I saw Julianne, she was already dead. Yes, she walked and talked but the sparkle of life was dim in her eyes, like a flashlight with used up batteries. Perhaps she knew it and needed to visit her cousins in Philly before passing on. When we greeted her we stood silent, in shock, gazing at a young woman who had been transformed into an old lifeless wretch. We hugged her and pretended that nothing was wrong. But everyone knew that the specter of Death had its hand on Julianne's shoulder.

    I can see that odious white skull of death standing behind you. It waits. It grins that eternal death mask grin and waits! It waits for your next destructive decision.

    And it is your decision, your responsibility. Only you, and no one else, can know what is best for you. No one else resides in your skin. Life or Death, the ultimate choice is yours and yours alone.

    Wait! That's not true. There is another entity that dwells within. It is that part of you that you choose to ignore. It
    speaks a strong and steady message you don't want to hear. It speaks, yet you choose not to hear the messenger's
    silent voice. Julianne chose not to hear the message. And she is dead.

    Are you still a drug addict?

    What is the message? I don't know. (I believe the message is different for each of us. I believe that every person has a message inside them whispering gently.) But, what I do know is this; I know that the message celebrates life with all of its wondrous possibilities.

    Who speaks the message? The Speaker is known by many names. But don't get hung up on who or what it is, just be satisfied in knowing that the “Message Giver” lives within your soul. You are a part of it and it is a part of you. We all have this entity within us. It is in the gleam of a baby's eye. It is in the passion of young lovers. It is in the wisdom of our elders.

    You must decide. If you choose to continue your walk with death, I will be sad. If you take the path of life, I will give thanks and rejoice.

    Again, the choice is yours.

    In any case, I will love you—no matter what. I can say this without reservation because I hear my own message within. It tells me that love is the greatest power in the universe. The death triad of drug addiction, poverty and racism is no match against this power.

    The real tragedy is that Julianne sought love and acceptance from outside sources. The greatest love she already possessed. It was there, inside her, all the time.

    But she could not hear the message. Will you? Get still. Be quiet and listen with your heart and not your ears.

    Your loving brother,


    Although the letter was never mailed, Chico got the message. He reduced his drinking considerably, he cut out the crack cocaine and began to fight his HIV/AIDS.

    At 1 am, on Wednesday morning, July 25, 2007 Chico’s life came to a close. For another 20 years after I wrote this letter he continued to live and struggle and he died clean.

    Rest In Peace, brother. I am proud of you.
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