MY DUNGEON SHOOK
LETTER TO MY NEPHEW ON THE ONE HUNDREDTH ANNIVERSARY OF THE EMANICIPATION
I have begun this letter five times and torn it up five times. I keep seeing
your face, which is also the face of your father and my brother. Like him, you
are tough, dark, vulnerable, moodywith a very definite tendency to sound
truculent because you want no one to think you are soft. You may be like your
grandfather in this, I dont know, but certainly both you and your father
resemble him very much physically. Well, he is dead, he never saw you, and he
had a terrible life; he was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom
of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him. This is one
of the reasons that he became so holy. I am sure that your father has told you
something about all that. Neither you nor your father exhibit any tendency towards
holiness: you really are of another era, part of what happened when the late
E. Franklin Frazier called the cities of destruction. You can only
be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.
I tell you this because I love you, and please dont forget it.
I have known both of you all your lives, have carried your Daddy in my arms
and on my shoulders, kissed and spanked him and watched him learn to walk. I
dont know if youve known anybody from that far back; if youve
loved anybody that long, first as an infant, then as a child, then as a man,
you gain a strange perspective on time and human pain and effort. Other people
cannot see what I see whenever I look into your fathers face as it is
today are all those other faces which were his. Let him laugh and I see a cellar
your father does not remember and a house he does not remember and I hear in
his present laughter his laughter as a child. Let him curse and I remember him
falling down the cellar steps, and howling, and I remember, with pain, his tears,
which my hand or your grandmothers so easily wiped away. But no ones
hand can wipe away those tears he sheds invisibly today, which one hears in
his laughter and in his speech and in his songs. I know what the world has done
to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much
worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen,
and for which 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. One can be, indeed one must strive to become,
tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most
of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man. (But remember: most
of mankind is not all of mankind.) But it is not permissible that the authors
of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes
Now, my dear namesake, these innocent and well-meaning people, your countrymen,
have caused you to be born under conditions not very far removed from those
described for us by Charles Dickens in the London of more than a hundred years
ago. (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, for most of them do not yet really
know that you exist. I know the conditions, under which you were born, for I
was there. Your countrymen were not there, and havent made it yet. Your
grandmother was also there, and no one has ever accused her of being bitter.
I suggest that the innocents check with her. She isnt hard to find. Your
countrymen dont know that she exists, either, though she has been working
for them all their lives.)
Well, you were born, here you came, something like fourteen years ago: and
though your father and mother and grandmother, looking about the streets through
which they were carrying you, staring at the walls into which they brought you,
had every reason to be heavyhearted, yet they were not. For here you were, Big
James, named for meyou were a big baby, I was nothere you were:
to be loved. To be loved, baby, hard, at once, and forever, to strengthen you
against the loveless world. Remember that: I know how black it looks today,
for you. It looked bad that day, too, yes, we were trembling. We have not stopped
trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other none of us would have survived.
And now you must survive because we love you, and for the sake of your children
and your childrens children.
This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended
that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that, for
the heart of the matter is here, and the root of my dispute with my country.
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 do it and whom you could marry. I know
that 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 ones word for anything, including minebut trust your experience.
Know whence you came. If you know whence your 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, though 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 so 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 identity. Try to imagine how you would feel
if you woke up one morning to find the sun not shinning and all the stars aflame.
You would be frightened because it is our of the order of nature. Any upheaval
in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks ones sense
of ones own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white mans
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, dont 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 mans 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 brothersyour 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. For this is your home, my friend, do not
be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and
we can make America what America must become. 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 the most terrifying odds, achieved and
unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of poets, some
of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought
I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.
You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of
freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free. God
bless you, James, and Godspeed.