My Dungeon Shook

James Baldwin's powerful 1962 essay "My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the of the Emancipation" (originally in The Progressive, and slightly edited in the book The Fire Next Time) does a striking inversion near its end, where he argues for love and hope:

... There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger. ...

Baldwin concludes with (guarded) optimism:

... But these men are your brothers, your lost younger brothers, and if the word "integration" means anything, this is what it means, that we with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it, for this is your home, my friend. Do not be driven from it. Great men have done great things here and will again and we can make America what America must become.

It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy peasant stock, men who picked cotton, dammed rivers, built railroads, and in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, "The very time I thought I was lost, my dungeon shook and my chains fell off."

You know and I know that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too early. We cannot be free until they are free. God bless you, James, and Godspeed.

(cf Interracial Intimacies (24 Feb 2003), Racial Relationships (2004-01-10), An Hour Before Daylight (2004-05-25), Race and Love (2004-08-06), Troublesome Words (2006-04-09), Jimmy Carter (2017-04-27), ...) - ^z - 2020-06-30