My Dungeon Shook: A Letter to my Nephew

"My Dungeon Shook: A Letter to My Nephew" is one of two articles in James Baldwin's book "Fire Next Time," which was published in 1963. The book was created in the 100th year following President Lincoln's abolition of slavery in the United States in 1863. This was following the Emancipation Proclamation. Baldwin wrote the article in the guise of a letter to his fifteen-year-old nephew, informing him about the issues that black people faced in a white-dominated country. The whites discriminated against the blacks and placed them in situations that were not far from the oppressions in London in the past that were described by Charles Dickens.

The whites did not create the situations out of their will, but out of the fear of losing the country they had known since. This was after the blacks started to form antiracism movements in the United States. Baldwin warns his nephew of the dangers that threaten the lives of black people. The fate of the American people coexists between the identities of the white and the blacks; therefore, for America to realize its dream, both must understand and acknowledge each other. He tells his nephew that the white society has incredibly narrowed his world; hence his dreams can never stretch beyond the streets corners found in the Harlem ghetto. He advises the younger generation to learn to accept the whites because the white people have installed innocence and superiority norms in them. The image that they have created for themselves cannot initiate change in any way. Baldwin can see this through the racism and discrimination that is so common in the American society.

Baldwin’s essay brings out two themes: racism due to white man’s actions of supremacy and the power of love and forgiveness in addressing issues in the society. Through his message to his nephew, a conclusion can be drawn that the white Americans are discriminative of the black people because of white supremacy, fear, ignorance and the overwhelming desire to conserve their identity. They have denied themselves a chance to express their human nature.

The Europeans methods of development that is derived from the exchange of ideas and skills made them gain more knowledge than other countries in the world. Their development rate increased rapidly as their desire and greed for power. The desire to be in control led to the birth of slavery. Baldwin’s reference to the whites as people who view themselves as superior to other cultures can be derived from their desire to be in control. At the time of slavery, the whites had a luxurious lifestyle; they were being referred to as the Lords by their slaves. Therefore, when the slavery was abolished and Black Americans began to fight for their rights in the society, they felt threatened. They feared that the blacks would strip them of their long-established identity.

Caucasians' reaction to the movements that the blacks created showed intensive discrimination and violence. Some of the blacks were killed for no reason. Although the whites felt that they needed to defend their identity, the truth was that they were scared of the implications that the decision would bring to them later. The blacks who were once their slaves would have similar and equal rights as them. Hence their power and superiority would be reduced to the same level as the blacks.

The majority of the members of the white race feared the effects that the equality that the blacks were struggling to achieve through civil right movements would bring to them in future. Just as Franklin D Roosevelt quoted during his Inauguration in 1933, “Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Baldwin understood the context of racism to be linked by the fear of loss of identity, power and superiority on the white American part. He advises his Nephew to learn to accept the Whites with love even though they had done terrible things to them. He explains that the white people had no other things that they could build their hopes on. They had been made to believe that the blacks are inferior to them.

People have difficulties in acting on what they already know, to act is to commit and to commit is dangerous. In this context, the white men saw danger in the loss of their identity. They feared being displaced from the world they have known. Human fear results from years of evolving; the fear of snakes made the ancient people develop defense mechanisms such as development of better eyes and fear detectors that could help them locate the snakes and either kill or flee them. Their primary focus was the development of better means of identifying their source of fear (Dyson, 7). Fear prompted the whites to develop a mechanism of silencing the blacks and making them realize that they were the intruders. The black community acted back with violence out of fear of the white man power. Baldwin offers solutions to the Black Americans that they needed to forge their identity rather than listening to the words of the Whites.

The white innocence and ignorance constitute the crime. This is evident in the way the white people think, speak and act as if they do not have a role to play in the racial discrimination and violence that is affecting the Americans. The whites deny their responsibility that includes the existence of racism in the American soil. The White Americans are rooted in the idea that the white community is exceptional and outstanding; they are superior to anyone else especially when compared to the black Americans (Dyson, p. 14). The American capitalism was built on slavery and racial discrimination. The myth of the white innocence is derived from the liberal myth of the good individuals. They believe in their innocence unless proven guilty that they can never do anything wrong. They assume that there is nothing wrong with the way the blacks are being treated. However, their ignorance about the way they treat the black people is inflicting pain and suffering to the blacks.

The misinterpretation of the context of the white supremacy has led the white Americans to develop a sense of ignorance and misconception of their existence. The power of racism is well understood if it is stationed in the sense of white supremacy. Baldwin is trying to understand the Whites and the place they have reduced them to. He tells his nephew that “You can only be destroyed by believing that you are what the white world calls a nigger” (Baldwin, p. 243). This illustrates the sufferings that the blacks were going through emotionally and physically. Calling someone a nigger lowers their self-worth and esteem. The white society underestimated their utterance without considering whether they caused harm to their victims. The white idea of innocence and ignorance renders the question of the privileges and systematic racism invisible in the American culture.

Proper communication is the only weapon to racial discrimination, as Baldwin says to his nephew. Fighting fire with fire can never solve anything. Baldwin knew that it was important for his nephew to learn to forgive his oppressors because they were acting out of the myth that their history entails. He understood that what people think of you should not matter as long as you know your worth in the society. The white Americans were trying to defend their territory something that their history has taught them that should be theirs and theirs alone. During the colonial period, the white supremacy was the order. African Americans were deemed as worthless people, people whose livelihood depended on the hands of the white men. The black population lived in the ghetto that was their place defined for them. The development of the civil rights movements threatened their existence.

The racial discrimination that exists among the people of color and the Caucasian Americans cannot be described as passive nor immutable realities in society. The minority members (blacks and other immigrants) have struggled to earn their space in the white-dominated society who also try hard to maintain their ancient privileges that are in danger of being seized by the subordinated groups (Bonilla -Silva, p. 20). The civil rights movement acted as a turning point for both groups. Some reforms have been made since that time; racism has taken a new form (Bonilla -Silva and Trepagnier, p.11). The blacks in their quest to earn new status have developed a mechanism that is meant to fight back with the same method the whites had used to oppress them i.e. using violence. Violence is what Baldwin is trying to warn his nephew and the black community to stop using to survive in the brutal world which doesn’t care about their existence. Rather, they should accept them with love (Baldwin, p.233).

The Whites believe that they were born superior to anyone else and therefore, people should understand their place in the society. They have adopted a technique whereby they insinuate that there is no racism in America. They suggest that the people talking about racism in America are color blind. However, the issue is so intensive that the white community does not realize the rate at which they oppress the people of color. Baldwin claims that the whites are destroying the people of color without even realizing it. Just like rotten apples are supposed to be removed and thrown away, is the same way the protesting blacks should be dealt with (Baldwin, 243). In his letter, Baldwin explains to his nephew that to survive in such a situation he needs to learn to love and forgive. The whites were afraid of the capacity and strength of the blacks when they began showing signs of dominance in some of the fields that the white people had claimed a position in such as politics and careers fields. They started giving the blacks demeaning names such as “nigger” which is very offensive and vulgar.

For many years the blacks have acted as slaves to the white people, becoming laborers in their plantation fields. Therefore, after slave trade and slavery ended, the innocent and ignorant whites were in a huge shock. The law upset their identity. They were no longer masters and lords and at the same time the blacks were no longer slaves. They were reduced to equal people just as ordinary Americans with equal rights. Baldwin advises his nephew to acknowledge them as their brothers and forget the things they had gone through.

The white supremacy can be traced back from many centuries ago. Today, it is more evident in the way the whites handle the blacks as if they are nothing. In June 2015, an ignorant and a white supremacist believer opened fire and killed nine African American Christians who were gathered in a church for a bible study. The shooter never showered any remorse in his evil act. According to him, the blacks were nothing in the society; he did not understand that the blacks were human beings too and should be treated as such. This sense of ignorance in the suffering of another person can be linked to the white supremacy ideology that the whites have since carried with them.

The whites have chosen not to be aware of what it means to be a black person. Their privileged and unjust system is an evidence of moral failure, but they have decided to close their eyes when such situations arise or their ears when they are being discussed. This extreme ignorance has cost many blacks their lives on the streets and even in their houses. Some of them do not show ignorance in violence, but by the way, they act. For example, some parents will advise their children not to interact with black children. As discussed earlier, some of them are aware that they are cruel to the people of color but just assume because they are afraid to act on that knowledge or the effects that the action will cause them. Even though this ignorance has caused many people to lose their lives, Baldwin advises his nephew to never be like the white people. In this context, he meant that the white people might try to hurt them, nevertheless the blacks should not hurt them back but rather develop positive ways to face their oppressors courageously. They believe in a history in which they have no knowledge off but until they understand the implications of that history they cannot be taken away from it (Baldwin, p. 240).

The whiteness is not built on the social structure in the American soil, but its effects are also found deeply rooted in their culture. However, those instances are commonly ignored by people and go unnoticed. Dyson points out that although some people may not have intent for practicing racism, their actions may, however, have severe racial consequences (p.20). Dyson arguments show how the negligence on the part of the American government although not actively intended was caused by color differences. President Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina was not due to his desire for the black’s destruction, but the response was not even enough to save them from such a situation. The poor black Americans experienced adverse effects than the fellow white people. He goes ahead to explain that ignoring the suffering of the black people goes hand in hand with race indifference (p.20-21). One needs not to be immersed in the white supremacy to benefit from its effects.

As explained by Baldwin, he tells his nephew not to listen to the words of the white people but to work his way out of it. The whites deem them as inferior and reserve a place for them in the ghetto, where they are not supposed to learn and acquire their kind of knowledge. He advises his nephew that education was the power and he should embrace it. Whites enjoy being above others, and therefore they are threatened when people they feel are inferior start behaving like them. Even though most white people seek to deny their privileges, most white supremacist aim at justifying and expand it.

White supremacy takes many forms; the first to be experienced in America was based on Christianity. The United States and the Asian countries are among the firmest believers in Christianity (Phillips, p.101). Although the trend has not been followed since modernism impeached the world; the Americans have since deviated to secularism. They again believe in the bible and that every literature in the Bible is potentially real. They also believe that they share a common covenant with God. Therefore, they have a special personal relationship with God as His chosen people. This notion of their special covenant with God has led them to believe that they have the authority and power over any other human being. However, the covenant excluded the Black slaves and the Native Americans. In fact, there were some threats that God was supposed to protect them from. They viewed the blacks and the Indians as heathens hence they were allowed to impose whatever treatment they preferred on them both emotionally and physically (Bonilla-Silva, 130).

In conclusion, Baldwin’s essay is a demonstration of how the society should rise in a modernized manner to fight the oppression imposed by white supremacy, fear, and ignorance. He illustrates that bloodshed and violence are not the way forward, but the communities should learn to accept each other regardless of their respective skin color. Forgiveness and love are the only way to develop a society that is racism free. He understands the mind of the white people and advises them to reconsider their supremacy history and appreciate the importance of everyone in the society.

The significance of Baldwin’s essay in the modern society is based on the issue of white supremacy and the oppression that the blacks face due to the ignorance of the white people of the suffering they inflict on the blacks. On the other hand, eradicating the white supremacy is not as simple as it seems. In addition to advising the prejudiced whites to learn to appreciate cultural issues of all people, a more systematic social approach on the issue should be developed. The relationship between the whites and the non-whites needs to be changed to favor both the parties equally. God created everyone equal. Therefore, they should learn to appreciate each other.

Works cited

Baldwin, James Fire Next Time. S.l.: New Holland Australia, 1963. Print.

Bonilla-Silva, E. 2006. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States.Lanham: The Rowman Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.

Bonilla-Silva, E. and T. A. Forman. 2000. ""I am not a racist but . . .": Mapping White college students' racial ideology in the USA."Discourse society11 (1):50-85.

Dyson, Michael Eric. Come hell or high water: Hurricane Katrina and the color of disaster. 2006. Print.

Phillips, Kevin. American theocracy: the peril and politics of radical religion, oil, and borrowed money in the 21st century. New York, NY: Penguin, 2007. Print.

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