My Dungeon Shook by James Baldwin



Baldwin, my current muse, wrote a very profound letter to his fourteen-year-old nephew called "My Dungeon Shook." The title, borrowed from a negro spiritual entitled "You Got A Right," refers to the hopeful/eventual emancipation of the negro slave. Baldwin was aware, of course, that blacks were already freed from slavery. But they were not yet free from what white people thought of him - that they were in their minds, worthless human beings. "My Dungeon Shook," despite being a personal letter to Baldwin's nephew, is a very relatable essay for most black people. My own father had held numerous conversations with me about his relationship with white people growing up. How, even in Bedstuy, white people were not allowed on his block. How the only white man was a lenient officer who didn't' impose his authority on young black men - how rare that was. My father has marveled at the modern unity between blacks and white, as if waking from a dream (or laying solidly within one) and how many from his own generation (black and white) refuse to acquiesce to it. My father, much like Baldwin, understands that his countrymen have not always seen him, and that their innocence constitutes the crime. That is, that he has not always been viewed as a man, by people who have never actually wronged him. This letter is a very regular conversation between black relatives - the old warning the young. Like the day within a black child's life where they are made aware that slavery occurred. That for 400 years, "the land of the free" forced Africans to labor over stolen land while they tore families apart, mutilated, raped and murdered them, for no other reason than the color of their skin. There are fathers who must tell their sons and daughters to be diligent when dating outside their race or to be conscientious when they are driving. Baldwin's letter to James are all these things - a warning, and a reminder. Baldwin differs from the usual conversation in a very interesting way. It is Baldwin's belief that his fellow countrymen are in fact innocent. That they are simply reaping the benefits of a faux superiority that they were born into. That their challenge is shifting their perspective that the American Negro is not a worthless human being, but something more, something parallel -equal even. That understanding led me to believe that the negro spiritual Baldwin reference is not, for his use, about the negro, but about his innocent countrymen - the white man. The song goes (in part):

"The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off." In a very particular way it isn't the black men who is in need of liberation. It is Baldwin's countrymen who has struggled to see the fault in his curious perception of blacks. It is his countrymen who must understand that he is lost and that once he does reach this realization, he will have freed himself. And once he has freed himself, that he will no longer struggle to grant blacks the freedom that they were promised over a hundred years ago.