Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook – Letter to My Nephew”

The 1960s were a kind of turning point in the history of black US citizens. Namely, during this period, the black ‘revolution’ of America began. The civil rights movement has officially put an end to the issue of discrimination against representatives of the “colored” population of the country. In 1964, a civil rights law was passed prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and religion. The spirit of the era is vividly represented in a number of works, but especially in the journalism of the African-American writer James Baldwin, who won fame as one of the best publicists in the USA.

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The main problems of his publications are represented by issues of racial and national identity, the formation of self-consciousness of a person originated from the ghetto, his disappointments, mistakes, hopes, and aspirations. Baldwin’s journalism has become a kind of weapon against the dominant social system. Namely, in the journalism of the writer, the problem of the Black movement in the United States found its most powerful reflection.

Baldwin portrayed America as a combination of two worlds at war with each other ‑ the world of whites and the world of blacks, a powerful America and a wretched Black ghetto. Baldwin rightly noted that every American must accept the past in order to learn from it lessons that will help him in the present and future; every American must accept himself, his roots.

The essay My Dungeon Shook – Letter to my Nephew, Baldwin addressed his nephew James, warning him that he had nothing to expect from the indifferent world of Whites Baldwin is convincing the reader that the racial problem in America could be solved only by the combined efforts of both black and white Americans. Baldwin demonstrates that namely blindness and indifference of whites injure blacks.

The great ignorance that white demonstrates, he says, allows him to declare himself innocent of everything that happens to blacks (Baldwin 13-14). However, for Baldwin, this is a crime, and, therefore, he advises his nephew to know better and begin to understand whites through love. The writer’s main approach is to get rid of Whites’ dangerous prejudices against Blacks; the most serious prejudice is that black is a lower and inhuman being who can be blamed for all the evil in American society.

Baldwin’s work truly reflects the evolution of the racial situation in America in the 1960s. In the 1970s, the racial situation in America was no longer so explosive; nevertheless, whites and blacks still existed as two separate worlds in one country. However, thanks to the civil rights movement in the previous decade, African Americans have been able to revive their racial pride and understanding that they are able to defend it. The riots in Ferguson, the Black Lives Matter movement represent a clear indication of the growing awareness of African Americans. However, methods of combating racial inequality are shifting to the plane of violence, which is fraught with an even greater increase in tension.

Officially, segregation in the United States ceased to exist more than fifty years ago. Today the situation, described hyperbolically in Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood, can only be seen in the cinema. However, in many parts of the country, Americans of different races are not neighbors ‑ they go to different schools, shop in different stores and do not always have access to the same services. After decades, the problems of segregation and inequality are far from being resolved.

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Americans with light and dark skin color have different affluence, often live in different areas (Trounstine 120-123). If the races do not interact with each other, all talk about solving racial problems seems premature. In 2019, the racial issue still holds a leading position in the list of current social topics in the United States (Thomas et al. 230-232). The police killings of unarmed black men and women over the past few years have resumed discussions on racial relations in America.

Despite obvious progress in overcoming the legacy of slavery and racial exclusion, inequalities continue to intersect in new combinations and forms. This is partly as a result of the successes of the 1960s social movements that made it possible to expand the black middle class outside the segregated black community. At the same time, the poor and truly disadvantaged sections of the black population remained in these segregated communities.

Thus, one part of black America got the opportunity to accumulate various forms of capital ‑ financial, social, and human ‑ and full civic participation. At the same time, the other part remained marginalized, which strengthened the country’s racial polarization (Trounstine 187-191). On the other hand, this new middle class of African-Americans was rapidly losing its identity, taking the “white” identity of Weber’s “Protestantism and the spirit of capitalism.”

There is a kind of significant psychological conflict among American blacks. It is manifested in the fact that one of the founders of the still existing NAACP, pan-Africanist and advocate for the integration of blacks into American society, William Dubois called “double consciousness” (Itzigsohn and Brown 234-237). It meant that the African American looks at himself through the eyes of others (that is, white Americans), feels the dual nature of his identity, being both American and African at the same time.

In this context, Baldwin’s ideas and appeals prove particularly relevant ‑ nothing is more destructive than blind hatred and rage. Despite his rejection of racists, Baldwin is one of the black writers who wants to solve the problem of racism through dialogue with white citizens of America. He believes that only human love and understanding between blacks and whites can save America from an imminent disaster, from which, in an artistic manner, George Orwell warned in his Animal Farm.

Baldwin is convinced that the American white, whatever he was, always felt guilty about black, and namely from this feeling, in the writer’s opinion, the transformation of American society will begin (Baldwin 12, 15). Only time and patience can help in solving this problem. Baldwin is describing the complexity of the situation and the necessity for each person to ask himself a question and look for answers in order to better understand the whole that he is a part of.

According to Baldwin, even a handful of purposeful Whites and Blacks can lead to a change in American society. Everything will depend not on the number, but on the will and determination of these people. Given the accomplishments Martin Luther King Jr. managed to achieve, this statement seems fair. In fact, Baldwin answers the question of what racial democracy might look like. He believes that racial democracy could be a society where racial differences at the level of identity would not be associated with racially specific forms of inequality. In other words, such a society would combine racial differences and racial equality.

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Works Cited

Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time: My Dungeon Shook; Down at the Cross. Penguin Classics, 1990.

Itzigsohn, Jose and Karida Brown. “Sociology and the Theory of Double Consciousness.” Du Bois Review Social Science Research on Race, vol. 12, no. 2, 2015, pp. 231-248.

Trounstine, James. Segregation by Design: Local Politics and Inequality in American Cities. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Thomas, Melvin E. et al. “Separate and Unequal: The Impact of Socioeconomic Status, Segregation, and the Great Recession on Racial Disparities in Housing Values.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, vol. 4, no. 2, 2018, pp. 229-244.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, June 27). Baldwin's "My Dungeon Shook - Letter to My Nephew". Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/baldwins-my-dungeon-shook-letter-to-my-nephew/

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"Baldwin's "My Dungeon Shook - Letter to My Nephew"." StudyCorgi, 27 June 2021, studycorgi.com/baldwins-my-dungeon-shook-letter-to-my-nephew/.

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StudyCorgi. "Baldwin's "My Dungeon Shook - Letter to My Nephew"." June 27, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/baldwins-my-dungeon-shook-letter-to-my-nephew/.

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StudyCorgi. 2021. "Baldwin's "My Dungeon Shook - Letter to My Nephew"." June 27, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/baldwins-my-dungeon-shook-letter-to-my-nephew/.

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