A Letter to All of my Black Nieces and Nephews

In “My Dungeon Shook,” Baldwin’s letter to his nephew is very personal and shows a side of Baldwin unlike the one portrayed in his fiction. In the letter, Baldwin is preparing his nephew for the racism he will soon confront in America and which he will soon begin to realize is an aspect that will affect his everyday life. However, despite the racism that has corrupted and plagued the world, Baldwin has hope for his nephew. Before even getting into the intricacies of the letter, Baldwin writes, “I tell you this because I love you, and please don’t you ever forget it” (Baldwin, CE, 291). 

As someone who has clearly developed wisdom through his own experiences, Baldwin begins with a powerful line, “you can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger” (Baldwin, CE, 291). Baldwin gets straight to the point. Rather than advising his nephew on how to navigate the world as a Black man, he is preparing his nephew for the white problem not the Negro one. As Baldwin writes earlier in the letter, it is because of what the white people said that his brother and his nephew’s father died. “He really believed what the white people said about him” (Baldwin, CE, 291). This line reminded me of another passage by Baldwin in No Name in the Street. In the passage, Baldwin ‘exposes’ white people and calls out how they are the perptrators of racism and “the Negro problem” in society. Baldwin writes, “ 

The failure of the private life has always had the most debating effect on American public conduct, and on black-white relations. If Americans were not so terrified of their private selves, they would never have needed to invent and could never have become so dependent on what they still call “the Negro problem.” This problem which they invented in order to safeguard their purity, has made of them criminals and monsters, and it is destroying them; and this is not from anything blacks may or may not be doing but because of the role a guilty and constricted white imagination has assigned to the blacks” (Baldwin, CE, p. 386). 

The role of the guilty that was assigned to Baldwin’s brother and his nephew’s father and his belief that he really was the nigger the white world viewed him as is what killed him. As something almost inevitable because whites choose to privatize their life and operate on racism and fear, Baldwin wants to avoid this for his nephew. 

I found Baldwin’s transition into emphazising the power of perception in shaping an individuals’ reality very important. By highlighting that it is because of the racist mindset that white Americans possess that has nothing to do with what Black people are actually doing, Baldwin cautions his nephew and all Black people against internalizng the derogatory names imposed by the white world, the guilt, and more. The “private life” of white people has a negative effect on Black people more than many understand and realize and it has a great potential to create even worse impacts if Black people are to believe the nonsense white poeple create to rationalize their private life. As “authors of devastation,” white people are not innoccent. “It is the innocence which constitues the crime” Baldwin writes (Baldwin, CE, p. 292). The privilege that white people posses that grants them the power to assign these roles and impart these ideas onto society has more to do with white Americans using Negros and inventing the Negro problem as a way for them to grapple with their own insecurities and fears, making them the true “criminals and monsters” (Baldwin, CE, p. 386). Due to all of this, Baldwin explains to his nephew that “you were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason” (Baldwin, CE, p. 293). “You were not expected to aspire to excellence” thus, you should not “testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear” (Baldwin, CE, p. 293). 

Baldwin’s encouragement to his nephew to cultivate a sense of himself, remembering his humanity, his generation, and his history, in relation to the external narraitves that seek to define Negros as the problems and the monsters in society is phenomenal. He does something here by revealing the dynamics and attitudes of white people that not many do. Nevertheless, “A Letter to My Nephew” is very significant and continues to be relevant in understanding the complexities of race relations in America. Instead of placing the burden solely on Black people, Baldwin (in his political era) directs the attention to the problems within the white community and challenges the conventional narrative that does not often place responsibility where it belongs.