In "My Dungeon Shook" by James Baldwin, what does "You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger," mean?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Baldwin's letter is a powerful one.  I think that it is trying to bring across the idea that while the power establishment that is run by White Americans has a tremendous impact on the life of African- Americans, Baldwin wants to suggest to his nephew that, in the final analysis, people of color choose how they are to be seen by White America.  In the "very definite tendency to sound truculent because you want no one to think you are soft," Baldwin suggests that the price of one's supposed freedom and defiance should not be to capitulate in confirming White people's stereotypes about people of color:

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 that believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear. 

I think that the closing lines in this excerpt is where Baldwin makes his strongest and most poignant pivot.  Baldwin makes the argument that his nephew, and essentially all African- Americans, have to recognize that the racist configurations that many Whites have towards people of color is rooted in their own weakness and their own insufficiency.  For people of color to transcend the limitations of those who might oppress them is the true sign of strength, the true definition of defiance.  Baldwin takes the traditional message of not surrendering and not acting in a manner that confirms the stereotype and makes it a source of strength and power.  It is here where this "talk" that he is having with his nephew becomes a political and social statement.  In the end, Baldwin asserts that the only way that White society's view of African- Americans becomes validated is if the individual accepts it through their actions and through their own "silent tears."  The racist construction of power and society is not what Baldwin sees as the fundamental threat to his nephew, and by extension, all Black people.  Rather, it is the difficulty in resisting it, in not absorbing it, and transcending it into a higher and more elevated plane of power that becomes the crucible for people of color in the modern setting.

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