James Baldwin and James Baldwin

In My Dungeon Shook, we glimpse a highly personal piece of Baldwin’s writing. Unlike fiction such as Giovanni’s Room or many of his essays, this letter is directed simply to Baldwin’s nephew, though it undoubtedly considers other audiences. Take the following line, for example: “I hear the chorus of the innocents screaming, ‘No! This is not true! How bitter you are!’––but I am writing this letter to you, to try to tell you something about how to handle them” (CE 292). Perhaps what makes this letter all the more personal is Baldwin’s repeated invocation of his nephew’s name: “Now, my dear namesake…Big James, named for me” (292). In writing to his nephew, James Baldwin, James Baldwin draws on a semantic kinship between himself and his kin. This special semantic  connection between the two Jameses reiterates the importance of the individual as they are derivative of their ancestors. 

Of course, all humans have a special connection to their ancestors. We are all “descendent” in a particular and unique way, the embodiment of generations of struggles, chance happenings, etc. As Rae’Vonne pointed out at the beginning of the semester, our ancestor’s trauma is often encoded into our very DNA via epigenetics (our environment can turn certain genes “on” and “off”). These are important facts of the human condition and individuality. 

Baldwin, whether deliberately or unintentionally, amplifies the interface between an individual and their ancestors by repeatedly focusing on the trauma, identities, and circumstances that he shares with his nephew. He writes, for example, “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” (CE 293). This line is one of many instances in My Dungeon Shook in which Baldwin reiterates the particular connection between himself and his nephew. Still, Baldwin does not believe that the semantic and experiential congruity between his life and his nephew’s will necessarily lead his nephew James down the same path as he went. Baldwin has hope for his nephew’s future, writing “If you know [from] whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go” (CE 293). Hence, even as Baldwin demonstrates the importance of the individual as descendent––as he writes that he and his nephew “come from” the same “sturdy peasant stock” (CE 294)––he conveys the possibility of breaking free from intergenerational sameness and from one’s descent.

One thought on “James Baldwin and James Baldwin”

  1. I really enjoy the way you highlight the importance of the nephew’s name, James Baldwin. It is striking that in the same piece that emphasizes the connection between name and identity, Baldwin writes “the details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you.” This letter then seems to be a project of saving the name for his nephew, by emphasizing the true and particular knowledge of the writer that you describe in your post, David.

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