Legendary African-American writer James Baldwin’s 1963 essay “My Dungeon Shook: A Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” is a brilliantly subversive exploration of internalized prejudice and the rhetoric of “inclusion”. (Thanks to the magazine The Sun for reprinting this essay in a recent issue, where I read it for the first time.)
Dismantling the official institutions of discrimination is only the first phase of the struggle, Baldwin argues. Full equality is impossible without reexamining the very structures of our psyches and seeing how they have been formed by the ideology of racial inferiority. This may require us to exist for some time in a state of groundlessness and fear, because we no longer know who we are. In a masterful reversal of the typical dynamic of “toleration”, Baldwin says that it is actually the oppressive majority who needs the minority’s compassion as they struggle with the loss of their old identity.
Since Baldwin was also a gay man who suffered from homophobia, even within the black activist community, I hope he would not mind my suggesting the obvious analogy to gay people’s struggle for acceptance in the church and society. Imagine the Anglican breakaway churches as your “lost, younger brothers” while reading this excerpt (I’ve added paragraph breaks to make it easier to read online):
You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do (and how you could do it) and where you could live and whom you could marry.
I know your countrymen do not agree with me about this, and I hear them saying, “You exaggerate’ ” They do not know Harlem, and I do. So do you. Take no one’s word for anything, including mine-but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear.
Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words acceptance and integration. 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 really 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. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality.
Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations. You, don’t be afraid. I said that it was intended that you should perish in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go behind the white man’s definitions, by never being allowed to spell your proper name. You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention; and by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. 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.
Read the whole essay here.