Is My Dungeon Shook still relevant today?

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belarafon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time in 1963, and it became an essential piece of literature both for its accurate portrayal of culture and its relevance today.

In the essay "My Dungeon Shook," Baldwin writes a letter to his nephew detailing his struggles with both freedom -- only one hundred years after Emancipation -- and his view of African-Americans in a predominantly white culture. While the essay is rooted in the 1960s civil rights clash, it remains relevant today with the presumption that race-relations depend on the memories of culture:

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.

Acceptance of blacks in society, at the time, was something required by law and instilled as a guilty reaction to history; Baldwin accepts this and derives from it that modern whites are neither personally guilty of their bred prejudice, nor are they morally required to change their bred behaviors because society has changed. Rather, whites should be altering their biases because they remember history and refuse to repeat it:

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.

Today, the cultural guilt over historical slavery, and continued cultural mistreatment of blacks into the modern day, are at the forefront of the Reparations movement, which seeks to pay off black communities for their historical troubles. Baldwin's essay reminds us that culture must change from learning and acceptance, rather than force and coercion.