A timely return to James Baldwin’s “The Dungeon Shook,” from The Fire Next Time:
Your face is like the face of your father, and like him, you are “tough, dark, vulnerable, moody–with a very definite tendency to sound truculent.” You would not want anyone “to think you are soft.” It is possible you are like the grandfather who never saw you. “You and your father resemble him very much physically.” But the grandfather had a “terrible life.” Why? He became a “defeated” man; before he died, deep down, he came to believe what white people said about him. He became “holy.”
Sorry, but I must tell you this! And I tell you that you “can only be destroyed” if you believe you are what they tell you, what they tell the world about you. “What the white world calls a n-word .” But do not worry–you and your father do not “exhibit any tendency toward holiness: you really are of another era, part of what happened when the Negro left the land and came into what the late E. Franklin Frazier called ‘the cities of destruction.'”
I love you! I love you! “[A]nd please don’t you ever forget it.”
Other people do not see what I see when I recall your father. They cannot remember what I remember. They cannot hear his laughter as a child or his howling. They have no memory of him crying. “I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it.”
Why? Because we are not free! We reside within something for which we must struggle to burst! For I know the worse. The crime! I know the crime of which “I accuse my country and countrymen,” the crime for “which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them.” So many lives! “Hundreds of thousands of lives,” destroyed and are being destroyed–and worse: many “do not know it and do not want to know it.”
To live in the innocence bubble is intoxicating favorable.
But this is not acceptable. It cannot be “permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
Yes, yes, yes! I hear the “chorus of the innocence” screaming: “‘No! This is not true! How bitter you are!'”
How hard it is to speak truth to power in the belly of the beast! It is harder still to write as a Black in America write about being Black in America.
But now, here it is–for what its worth, a letter to you, my nephew, written “on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.”
Do we hear an articulation of our current situation in the The United States? How long ago did James Baldwin, writer and activist write these words? And yet the bulk of the content of this letter to his nephew is relevant today.
When I think about the Black Lives Matter protesters, when I think about the dead bodies, Black youth shot down in our police state, when I think about how long this has been going on, how long ago when we thought the revolution would happen…I think about James Baldwin and the “My Dungeon Shook” from The Fire Next Time. That letter acknowledging a recognition of hate and, yes, love, from one generation to the next so resonates today: They may hate you, but I love you!
Your life matters to us-to those who love you!
And you must love yourself as you struggle and you love in an understanding that you are not the problem!
” I am writing this letter to you , to try and to tell you something about how to handle them , for most of them do not yet really know that you exist…I know the conditions under which you were born...”
What Baldwin has to convey in this letter is all the collective knowledge we have gained as an oppressed people. All our knowledge place side-by-side with that of the Native Americans, of Philippines, of the long-suffering victims and survivors of US atomic bombs, of the Koreans and Vietnamese, of the victims and survivors of US-imposed dictatorships.
” The innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish.” What do we have? Our experience! Your experience! “[T]rust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.”
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 . For it is ‘ you’ who ‘must accept them.’
Remember and understand how they are “still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” Many know. They do! They know better, yet “you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know.” For to act is to commit! And “to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.”
Better to commit to the production of s capegoats! P ersuade everyone to act as any good patriot would– any good police, teacher, bureaucrat, soldier, citizen. A s the Nazis learned, insist on safety for the “innocent” and the citizens will not ask from what!
It is “your imprisonment,” Baldwin continues , “that makes them feel safe. And yet, it is those with this belief who are “losing their grasp of reality.” Millions are spent building concrete and steel cages to imprison 2.2 million behind barbed wires. On the streets, armed and in uniforms, men and women, good citizens, patriots, hunt to capture or kill.
I love you! Your life matters! I know what it is you experience, and I know the conditions under which you live. I am not so afraid I look away.
America is our home! “Do not be driven from it!” America is our home! We must make it the America worthy to be called home.
It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity.
Your dignity is your heritage!
Remember, you come from “a long line” of great poets and one of them said: The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.”