There has been considerable debate in recent weeks about what the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd tell us about how people of colour daily experience the world we live in, and they disproportionately prematurely die in. Their deaths have caused us yet again to question the deep inequities and structural racism that exist in our societies. We are questioning how it gets to ‘hide in plain sight’ in the landscape and built environment of our major cities, literally monumental examples of the pervasiveness and insidiousness of racism. Hopefully we are also listening more attentively to those people of colour who share their experience of how it shapes our actions, interactions and relationships. Even more hopefully, we are taking action to be part of a movement for change and for transformation, taking our lead from people ‘qualified’ to to so, and doing the work we need to, to challenge our un/conscious biases, call ourselves out, and respond with grace when others do so.
This post has been a challenge to write. Silence is so much easier, but it is also a form of complicity, and one I don’t want to be part of.
In sharing this book with you, I do share a little of my relationship to it. In sharing how it resonates and why it has been part of my life and my learning for the last 35 years I fear I am centering myself too much, but I hope it speaks to the challenge that we as white people need to face up to; racism isn’t simply about people of colour, or in this instance about black people, it’s about ‘us’, we produced it and we perpetuate it, and until we ‘get our house in order’ we all have a problem, albeit not one that threatens our very existence. This is why I have chosen to share with you the words of James Baldwin and Toni Morrison today.
This is an old book. The price on the cover 2/6 gives the first indication of its age, pre-decimalisation, therefore pre-1972. Opening it up the publication details date its first publication as 1963 and this edition was published in 1964. It came to me second hand, I wasn’t even born when this book was first published 56 years ago, over half a century.
The title of this book, The Fire Next Time come from
The book’s title comes from the words of the spiritual song Mary Don’t You Weep:
God gave Noah the rainbow sign
No more water, the fire next time
This is an important book. Some believe it to be one of the most influential books about 1960s race relations in the US.
For me, that may be true but is influence is much more personal. This slim volume which contains two essays, the first of which I want to talk about today being just 5 1/2 of these small penguin pages, was my first introduction to the work of James Baldwin and really to a first hand narrative of the experience of racism in America. For indeed, systemic racism was American for 16 year old me. It was the stuff of history books, and I was going to do history A level, so I needed to know about it. Growing up in rural southern England I didn’t really know any people of colour, and I certainly didn’t know any better. In that context what James Baldwin taught me then, and I have carried it with me since, is that racism may aim to dehumanise the person of colour, but fundamentally it reflects the lack of humanity of the white racist.
This first short essay “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” is itself deeply personal, it speaks of ancestors the nephew will not know and will not remember but from whose lineage he is born. Then it turns to to the father/brother and Baldwin explains to the nephew named for him:
I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it and I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.
But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.
Baldwin writes of the response of ‘these innocent and well-meaning people’ who when identified as causing his nephew to be born into Dickensian conditions, deny it and call the author ‘bitter’. They can do so, he argues, because they neither know those conditions or see those who live in them, they are simply invisible to them.
This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that for the heart of the matter is here and the crux of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits to your ambition were thus expected to be settled. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence. You were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do and how you could do it, where you could live and whom you could marry.
When, yet again these ‘innocents’ protest these views, which they claim ‘exaggerate’ the situation, Baldwin calls on his nephew to believe in and trust their own shared experience. He entreats him to:
Know whence you came. If you know whence you 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 they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear.
Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words “acceptance” and “integration.” There is no reason for you to try to become like white men and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them, and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. 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.
Baldwin goes further to identify how fundamental the necessary change is:
Many of them indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations. You don’t be afraid. I said it was intended that you should perish, in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go beyond and behind the white man’s definition
To go beyond that definition, the promise of ‘integration’,
means, that we with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it, for this is your home, my friend.
Baldwin concludes with the quote that inspires the title of the essay,
“The very time I thought I was lost, my dungeon shook and my chains fell off.”
and then reflects:
You know and I know that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too early. We cannot be free until they are free.
This is a Timeless book. How prescient these words remain. What I find profoundly affecting is Baldwin’s analysis of those who do not want to know, who refuse to see, who are culpable. Also, how wearyingly familiar is that refrain of ‘you exaggerate’, how ‘bitter’ you are? That kind of tone policing is just as evident now as it was then, and long had been when Baldwin was writing. As for trusting one’s own experience, I’m sure we’ve all seen it when people have spoken out about their own experience and others have tried to diminish it, wanting to re-ascribe meaning and intention, and in doing so not only diminish the speaker, but take away their right to narrate their own lives.
I find this book sadly timeless, but more hopefully timely. It is both an indictment of were we are, and a reminder of the urgency to act. We’ve failed too long to heed the message. For those of my generation it’s easy to say, ‘oh but I’ve been doing anti-racist, anti-fascist work for years’. Well, that may be, but the questions remain ‘How far has it got us? Has it got us far enough? Is it time to double down rather than take the foot off the gas as we slip into middle/old age? What can the current generation of activists teach us?
Re-reading this essay is visceral experience and so it should be. It ought to shake us to our core and cause us to question our very humanity.
Why have a chosen to share Baldwin’s words and my reflections on them with you today?
I find there is nowhere to hide in these words,
They spur me to want to do better,
They make me question how many days of the week I go through the world as if an ‘innocent’
And how many days I contribute to making change happen
They remind me I’m accountable
So moving beyond our words, what does this accountability look like? Well for me it looks like a list of things I have committed to doing daily to support change. It is a list written on paper with days written next to tasks and any follow up needed written alongside. I have decided that I need to be systematic in response to systemic racism, it keeps me on track. Your response may be different. Certainly your actions will be. There are so many resources for education and reading, direct action you can take, action you can take to amplify others, organisations you can donate to if you’re in the position to do so, a little time on social media or google and you too will have a long list of quick and more considered action you can take, and once you get to the bottom of that list, you can make a new one.
I want to leave you with this fabulous clip of Toni Morrison, I’m not sure I want to say too much about it, her words are most certainly more eloquent than mine, but my heart soars at least twice in this clip, about the point where she says, ‘leave me out of it’ and her response to the question from the white male interviewer for some ‘free education’, and if you haven’t, I strongly endorse her response:
You can read the original text of My Dungeon Shook, slightly different from that re-published in my book, from which I quote, here
There is also an audio version on you tube here
and a discussion of this work in context as part of The Black Curriculum here