My Dungeon Shook

by James Baldwin

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In Baldwin's perspective, why was the boy's grandfather defeated?

Quick answer:

James Baldwin argued that it was the grandfather's belief in the racist lie that he was innately worth less than a white man which made him a victim of racism.

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James Baldwin wrote this letter to his nephew in 1963, one hundred years after Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address and declared that all men were created equal.

In 1963, however, America was still haunted by the specter of racism. James Baldwin was a vocal proponent of the civil rights movement, and was well known particularly for his essays dealing with the experience of black people in America.

In the letter to his nephew, Baldwin wrote that the nephew's grandfather was

defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him.

In Baldwin's view, therefore, the boy's grandfather was defeated because he believed the lie spread by racism, that as a black man he was inherently worth less than a white man. Baldwin also wrote, in the same paragraph:

You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a n****r.

When a white man called a black man a nigger they did so to imply that the black man was more animal than human. The "n-word" was loaded with connotations of savagery and moral degeneracy. Baldwin's point, in the letter, was that while the most conspicuous effects of racism might be those that we can see, the most damaging and insidious are those that we cannot, namely those that take root in the minds and hearts of black people. In other words, as a black man, as soon as the grandfather believed the racist lie that the color of his skin determined the content of his character, then racism had succeeded in poisoning his sense of self-worth, without which one is, to all intents and purposes, defeated.

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