History & Justice

“My Dungeon Shook” combines a personal, philosophical, and urgent tone to create a weighty and undeniably moving piece. Particularly, after reading it in light of our discussion regarding effective teaching pedagogies, I was struck by the language surrounding history. Baldwin effectively categorizes the way history functions as a tool for the oppressor, as well as its interaction with whiteness. “History,” though, in this letter is a complex term. For example, Baldwin delineates between different types of histories. Of the crimes of whiteness, Baldwin asserts “neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.” Here, history seems to refer to a neutral, objective force of justice and inertia, that ultimately progresses toward true emancipation for Black Americans. 

Baldwin describes another kind of history, though. He explains, white people “are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” The entrapping, false history is distinguishable from the previous definition. History, in this context, upholds injustice and opposes motion. It also comes to define whiteness, in its horrific and distorted “innocence” of manipulative and coercive ignorance. It is this type of history that Baldwin tells his nephew “does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear.” The malleable history is forgettable, boring, and whitewashed. It lacks nuance but commands and ensures violence. 

Luckily, Baldwin continues to resist through his letter to his nephew. Once again, he reinterprets the word history. By narrowing in on the particulars that whiteness erases, Baldwin reanimates history. He tells his nephew “It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of 4 the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity.” With his history of dignity and honesty, Baldwin inches society closer to the capital H history which moves indefinitely and unstoppably toward justice.

One thought on “History & Justice”

  1. Elizabeth,

    I like how you split up these two ideas of “history,” and how they are used in Baldwin’s works. I wonder, then, if Baldwin would consider himself to be entirely free from that lower-case h history that he condemns. Or would he claim to be free from it? Can he be fully free from it if the capital H History is yet untold? And with all this talk of history, what place is there for the future?
    As Walter Benjamin would remind us, the best way to repeat history is to forget it entirely (or something like that; I’ve fought tooth and nail to understand anything Benjamin says). So how might be ensure that our History is bending toward justice is we do not know it entirely? As professor Kinyon has asked, who should tell the story of America? Lots of questions hmmm…

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