Can someone tell me what James Baldwin means, in My Dungeon Shook, when he said the following: We cannot be free until they are free?"

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literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

James Baldwin was an African American writer whose texts focused upon racism, sexism, and class-ism.

In his letter to his nephew (written upon the one hundredth anniversary of the emancipation), called My Dungeon Shook, Baldwin spoke of the problems which still existed for those of African descent. In the letter, Baldwin recalls his nephew's life as he was growing up and the impact he wished he had been able to make upon him.

The letter, therefore, was written to serve as a sense of hope for his nephew. He wanted him to know that his parents "had every reason to be heavyhearted, yet they were not." Their hearts were weighted by the fact that their son had been born into a world which which many found to be loveless. Baldwin's letter was his attempt to show his nephew that he was loved in hopes that this knowledge would strengthen him "against the loveless world."

The last lines, prior to Baldwin's closing, state:

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.

This line is meant to explain to his nephew that he, while the emancipation of Blacks has been recognized for one hundred years, is really not truly free. The only way to find freedom, for both himself and other Blacks, is to escape from their own history.

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.

Until they escape, they cannot be free (and neither can his nephew).

Read the study guide:
My Dungeon Shook

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