Critical Analysis of Letter to My Nephew Dungeon Shook”


CriticalAnalysis ofLetter to My Nephew Dungeon Shook”

JamesBaldwin’s “Letter to My Nephew Dungeon Shook” waswritten in 1963. The author of the letter is James Baldwin. Hiscontext of authorship seems to be in a dungeon, when he cites therampant white man`s oppression. The letter is addressed to hisnephew, who also seems to be his namesake. The nephew is afifteen-year-old boy, as it is stated that “hereyou came, something like fourteen years ago…”The dungeon portrayed by Baldwin is not the one on chains and bondagebut regards the racism and segregation that was rampant in Americaduring this period. United States were in great distress in the 1960sbecause the country was being consumed by racism. The black UScitizens were always attacked, spurted with water horses and killed,just because of the color of their skin (Finkelman,2009).This letter explains what people of this period went through in theirlife every day. Baldwin paints it as a horrible experience thatneither he nor history would forgive them. Baldwin states, “Forwhich neither I nor history will forgive them” (Baldwin, 1963).This statement represents the feelings of the African-Americans wentthrough during that period.

TheAuthor’s Agenda

Baldwincomplaints about the unwitting placement of the ‘Negro’ by theAmerican white society. He claims that African Americans have beenplaced in an untenable position that is so close to the ‘oppressiveLondon of the past one hundred years.` He feels that the AfricanAmericans have been forgotten, and the white Americans do notrecognize their existence. James, the nephew, is black as well. Hetries to relate the oppression that the father went through with theoppression of the present period (at the time of authorship) andconcluded that even the younger generation where James belongs willface similar oppression. He thinks that the younger generation mustbe strong if they have to survive in the white man`s society. Thisstrength he thinks will be drawn from the love that bestowed uponthem by others of the same race, and which they should pass to thegenerations that will come after them (Baldwin,1963).

Becausehis nephew is black, Baldwin believes that the American society deemshim worthless. They have placed limitations on his ambitions, andthey have conditioned him to &quotmake peace with mediocrity.&quotThey have put boundaries to him on where to live, the things he cando and the person he can marry. Baldwin insists that the white mansociety will not stop from placing these boundaries, which are alwaysover-exaggerated the important thing is for every African-Americanto know them and identify their abilities. Baldwin’s main agenda isto speak against the oppression of the African-Americans by the whiteAmericans. However, Baldwin has a deeper message that admonishes theyoung James and the rest of black Americans (Baldwin,1963).

Whatthe Author wanted to achieve

Accordingto Baldwin, the society functions have been constructed deliberatelyfor the reason of making the African-Americans accept what the whitesociety says about them. He asserts that the negative depiction ofthe blacks by the white society is not a testimony to the inferiorityof the black man, but to the inhumanity and fear of the white man.Holding to this view, Baldwin believes that the young James alongwith those who are like him can detach from their shackles and holdof the opportunities they ought to have. In this letter, Baldwintries to indicate that even though there were much turmoil andresentment, there was no need to use force in the attainment of equalrights. He reminds James not to be like the other countrymen and thathe shall never assume that they will at one time accept him. On thecontrary, Baldwin tells the young James to learn and accept the whitepeople regardless of the poor treatment he receives from them(Baldwin,1963).

Theblack people, Baldwin believes, they are the masters of theirdestiny. Based on their experiences, black people can follow theirpassion and achieve much beyond the limitations placed on them by thewhite society. Baldwin presents a proactive approach regarding theoppression problem as oppose to defeatist and a reactive position.Using his father as a demonstration, he alludes that his father had a&quotterrible life.&quot He acknowledges that his father was&quotdefeated&quot before his death. According to his letter,Baldwin explains that the main reason his father was defeated was hisreaction to the country atmosphere. According to Baldwin, “Hereally believed what white people said about him.&quot Thus, thecritical concern for this letter is for James and other black peoplein America to disregard what the white people say about them.Instead, Baldwin requires them to get strong enough to overcome theoppression obstacle and take up the opportunities that lie ahead ofthem (Baldwin,1963).

TheStatement Format

Baldwin`smessage is presented through a paperback format. This format allowsthe presentation of a message in a strong paper that can be used fora long time without getting damaged. In addition, the material usedto present information in this format is cheap, making it affordableto many people. Authors who opt to use this kind of format preferthat they make lower margins of returns, but the statements will beavailable for a long period. Thus, by using this format, Baldwinwanted his message to be cheap and affordable so that it could toreach several people. In addition, it seems that the author wanted topresent his message in a more durable way so that the futuregenerations could access the message.

Baldwin’suse of paperback format makes a later contribution in the strugglefor the rights of the black Americans as demonstrated in the BlackPantherParty`s Ten-Point Program. This movement arose in 1980 demanding forbetter treatment of the white people. They held the governmentresponsible for the challenges they were facing, includingunemployment and low incomes to the employed, robbery of the landpromised to them and better education. They also complained about theforced military service, imprisonment and unfair trial and policebrutality against the black people. They wanted equal treatment andacceptance and happiness. They held the government responsible foraccomplishing these demands. They stressed that the government thatdoes not defend their rights as stipulated in the program should beabolished, and another one established. However, they never appliedforce, just like Baldwin had indicated in the letter (Hilliardet al., 2008).

FutureAdvancement and Benefits to Black people

Therise of the Black Panther Party attracted attention in the federalgovernment leading to the institution of programs that addressed theoppression faced by the black people by the white Americans. ThePanthers wanted to create a separate state and referred themselves asnationalists. In response, the government offered programs such asfree breakfast and free health clinics. Also, they encouraged theblacks to defend themselves against the oppression by the whites andcreated a mechanism to protect them from harassment by the police(Hilliardet al., 2008).

TheTone of the Statement

“Ihear the chorus of the innocents screaming, “No! This is not true!How bitter you are!”—but I am writing this letter to you, to tryto tell you something about how to handle them, for most of them donot yet really know that you exist.&nbsp I know the conditions,under which you were born, for I was there…&nbsp Your grandmotherwas also there, and no one has ever accused her of being bitter.&nbspI suggest that the innocents check with her.&nbsp She isn’t hardto find” (Baldwin,1963).

Thisexcerpt explains the tone of the message. Baldwin urges his nephewnot to be bitter. He alludes that the fellow black people are sobitter about the experiences that they face. However, Baldwinadvocates calmness and advises the nephew to learn about how to dealwith the situation in a more positive way. He explains that theseconditions had persisted for a long time, and neither his father norgrandmother was able to change them. The important thing for theyoung James was to know how to deal with the situation. He believesthat acceptance and focus, not bitterness and war, could bringliberation to James and the people of his generation. He says, “Wecan make America what America must become.”


JamesBaldwin’s “Letter to My Nephew Dungeon Shook” was a depictionof the experience the African-Americans went through in the 20thcentury. Baldwin`s letter to the nephew was advice to him on how heshould handle the oppression they faced at the hands of the whiteman`s society. Baldwin applies a calm tone to make the younger Jamesand accept the situation and ignore the negative thoughts the whitepeople have towards him. His letter sparked further impact on blackAmericans. This letter and the thoughts of James Baldwin could havepaved the way for the BlackPantherParty`s Ten-Point Program in 1980s.


Baldwin,J. (1963).&nbspTheFire Next Time.New York: The Dial Press.

Finkelman,P. (2009).&nbspEncyclopediaof African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age ofSegregation to the Twenty-First Century.New York: Oxford University Press.

Hilliard,D., Huey P. N., &amp Ebrary, I. (2008).&nbspTheBlack Panther Party: Service to the People Programs.Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.