Delighted to pick this up at a book sale in the small French village of Ansouis recently, it contains two pieces previously published in other formats, brought together in this slim but powerful book, originally published in 1963, a period of time when he had returned from eight years living in Paris and before he returned to live in the south of France for the last 17 years of his life.
I have read one of Baldwin’s novels If Beale Street Could Talk (also made into a film in 2018) and listened to his 1965 impassioned speech in the historic debate between James Baldwin v. William F. Buckley Jr. at Cambridge University on the question: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?“.
Letter to My Nephew
The first ‘Letter to my nephew on the one hundredth anniversary of the emancipation’ entitled My Dungeon Shook originally appeared in the Progressive Madison, Wisconsin – a magazine known for its strong pacifism, championing grassroots progressive politics, civil liberties, human rights, economic justice, a healthy environment, and a reinvigorated democracy, is a letter to his 15 year old nephew James (who appears in a photo with his author Uncle on the cover of the book I read).
He shares with him what and who he sees in him, that comes from within the family, qualities that endear and those to be careful of, all from a place of deep love.
He writes to him too of his country and what it means to be of this country, to be black, to be at home in it despite all, to retain dignity and remember, to take inspiration from the long line of poets he comes from and remember one of them who said:
The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.
A Letter to Me and You
The second is an essay Down at the Cross first appeared in the New Yorker as Letter from a Region of My Mind and is a wonderful talking through of his own development of self-awareness as he entered adolescence, describing how he and his peers came into a change that transformed girls and boys into something other and the refuges they seemed destined for, given how much beyond childhood wasn’t available to them.
He dissects his own choice to simultaneously seek refuge and revenge by going into the Church and the clarification it gave him, having seen beneath the veneer of that institution, while equally learning to use the tools it flexed to bring about an objective.
“I was saved. But at the same time, out of a deep, adolescent cunning I do not pretend to understand, I realized immediately that I could not remain in the church merely as another worshipper. I would have to give myself something to do, in order not to be too bored and find myself among all the wretched unsaved of the Avenue. And I don’t doubt that I also intended to best my father on his own ground. Anyway, very shortly after I joined the church, I became a preacher – a Young Minister – and I remained in the pulpit for more than three years. My youth quickly made me a much bigger drawing card than my father. I pushed this advantage ruthlessly, for it was the most effective means I had found of breaking his hold over me. That was the most frightening time of my life, and quite the most dishonest, and the resulting hysteria lent great passion to my sermons – for a while. I relished the attention and the relative immunity from punishment that my new status gave me, and I relished, above all, the sudden right to privacy.”
He also speaks of his meeting and audience with Elijah Muhammad, then leader of the Nation of Islam, and analyses what he perceives of this man and their intentions, beyond the religious element.
It is noteworthy to consider this organisation that brought together religion and a population suffering from racism, when one thinks about the fact that most wars come about over religious difference, what terrible outcome might have occurred should they have been successful in the aim of their conversion, to make Islam the religion of Black American people, thus turning an issue of race into one of ideology.
“It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be.”
Ultimately Baldwin’s message is one of love, for standing up for one’s rights, of dignity and the health of one’s soul, of our responsibility to life. His words seem as relevant today as they were at the time he wrote them.
“I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all.” James Baldwin
James Baldwin (1924-1987)
James Baldwin was an essayist, playwright, novelist and voice of the American civil rights movement. His essays, collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in the society of the United States during the mid twentieth-century.
An unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, was adapted for cinema as the Academy Award–nominated documentary film, the visual essay currently showing on Netflix (in France) I Am Not Your Negro (2016).
Other notable works include Go Tell It On The Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, If Beale Street Could Talk.
Interview: Paris Review – The Art of Fiction James Baldwin talking with Jordan Elgrably
New York Times: James Baldwin – His Voice Remembered; Life in His Language by Toni Morrison
LA Times: 30 Years After His Death James Baldwin Has Another Pop Culture Moment by Scott Timberg