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When read on superficially, it seems at first that Baldwin’s letter to his nephew James, “My Dungeon Shook,” speaks against the oppression of African-Americans by American white people. However, when one reads a bit more carefully, the letter is in fact an instruction to the young man in the context of this oppression. In this way, it offers a proactive approach to the problem of oppression rather than a reactive or defeatist position.
To demonstrate this, James Baldwin uses the example of his father who had a “terrible life” and was “defeated” even before he died. The main reason for this defeat, according to the letter, is his father’s reaction to the cultural atmosphere of the country: “…he really believed what white people said about him.”
This is the central issue against which Baldwin speaks. As a black person, his nephew has himself, regardless of the opinions of others and regardless of the opinion of those in power at the time. Baldwin urges the boy to use this power not only for his own advancement, but also for the advancement of his fellow black people and for the education of those who knew no better than to oppress.
The central point of the letter is therefore that, regardless of what others say, young James should remain strong in his own self and his ability to overcome every obstacle in his way.
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