Thursday, 1 May 2014

MY DUNGEON SHOOK { James Baldwin}

James Arthur Baldwin is a great African American writer. His first novel “Go Tell it on the Mountain” was published in 1953. His most famous book “Fire Next Time” was published in 1963. “My Dungeon Shook: A Letter to My Nephew” is one of the two essays of the book “Fire Next Time”. The two essays are written in the form of personal letters. Baldwin uses words as the sea uses waves. This essay was written on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation in 1963. It was in the year 1863 that Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in America by passing the Emancipation Proclamation.
This essay is in the form of a letter written to Baldwin’s nephew James. Baldwin tells his nephew that his grandfather was very soft at heart, but pretended to be very tough. He was so innocent that he blindly believed whatever the whites told him. They told him that he was a “nigger” and he believed it. “nigger” is the most dirty and vulgar name given to a human being. The grandfather thought of himself a cursed dirty slave and worked for the Whites. Thus the grandfather destroyed himself. This is why he had a terrible life and he was defeated long before he died.
 Baldwin says that the black could be destroyed only when they blindly believed what the whites told them. For example the whites called the blacks “a nigger” which means a dirty vulgar black insect larva. Any man of common sense knows that human being is not an insect. The whites have committed crimes.  They enslaved and tortured thousands and thousands of blacks and imprisoned them in the dark cells because the blacks never believed what the whites told them and never accepted them as their masters. Therefore the blacks could not be defeated in spite of innumerable cruelties and persecutions.  The black suffered untold miseries and pain and humiliations. But the whites are so stupid that they themselves don’t know the seriousness of their crime. The white Americans have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. This is why Baldwin sarcastically calls them “the innocent”.
 The blacks were brought from Africa in ships and forced them to work as slaves in farms and homes of the whites. They silently suffered the cruelties of the whites for centuries. These miserable living conditions of the blacks are narrated by Charles Dickens in his famous novels. The black children were born in the slums of the cities and they are sent to orphanages and workhouses. For the whites, a black is a worthless human being and he must live and perish in a ghetto.
 Referring to the birth of his nephew James, Baldwin says that on the day when his nephew was born, they all trembled with fear because of the sufferings the child will have to undergo in his life. But they were not sad. Instead they were thrilled with joy because a boy was born to them. One more soldier was born to the black community to fight the cruelties of the whites. So they loved him, gave him too much love to strengthen him in order to face the hardships, the imprisonments, the humiliations and other innumerable sufferings and thus the blacks survived. Baldwin says that if the blacks had not loved each other none of them would have survived.
 According to James Baldwin, the white Americans are afraid of the strength and capacity of the Blacks to dominate the whites in all fields of life, such as sports and games, literature etc. This is why they gave the blacks the symbols of life such as ‘nigger’, ‘ghetto’ and ask them to be slaves of the whites. For many centuries the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, and worked for him as his slave, but with the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation Law, slavery was abolished by Abraham Lincoln. It was a rude shock to the innocent white men. This ‘terrible law” upset their identity and now they lost their identity. They are no longer masters and the blacks are no longer slaves. It is a terrible paradox for the whites..  Baldwin explains this shock of the whites in beautiful phrases.” In one morning they woke up and shocked to see “the sun shines and stars aflame”. The Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery for ever in the USA. It resulted in the loss of their identity. They thought of themselves superior as long as the slaves are there. Now slavery is abolished and they lost their identity as masters. Therefore Baldwin advises his nephew to accept the whites as his brothers with love. Thus Baldwin gives a new meaning to the word ‘ integration, ’which is love.
Referring to the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln, the President of America on 1st January 1863, James Baldwin says that all the blacks in America could not believe at first the happiest news in their lives that slavery has been abolished. They are no longer ‘nigger’. They have become human beings with dignity and equality. On hearing this glad news an unknown black poet sang praising God Almighty for His love and cried “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off”. This is called “Old Negro Spiritual”. James Baldwin reminds his nephew of his great lineage that he has come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. The poem titled “Old Negro spiritual” itself shows the amazing poetic talent of the blacks.
 It took America more than a hundred years and two different Acts to grant the blacks their legitimate civil rights. They are the Emancipation Proclamation passed in the year 1863 and Civil Rights Act passed in 1964.



  1. Can you explain to me what was the purpose of the author's writing?