The Fire Next Time

The loss of identity that will take place for white people is perhaps one of the more crucial reasons as to why racial progress does not occur more rapidly in the United States. This identity loss will occur only when white people begin to reexamine their past and the role they have to play in this country’s potential for universal equity; this may very well be the reason why critical dialogue around US race relations does not transpire. Perhaps nowhere is this loss more accurately explored than in James Baldwin’s essay, “My Dungeon Shook” where he writes to his nephew:

“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 people 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.”

Here, the “storm” is the severity of the racial injustices that are taking place, especially in the civil rights era during which Baldwin is writing. Furthermore, the idea that white people must “accept” black people also ties into the notion of blackness as some sort of contaminant: one accepts what cannot be changed; one accepts the repercussions of adversities; one accepts inherent flaws in one’s self. For white people, the black community is a national flaw that must be “accepted” and not loved or even respected. Baldwin correctly calls this an “impertinent assumption.” The idea that black people are such a burden that they cannot be loved is a lie.

In addition, the distinction between “acceptance” and “integration” is that there is not one: black people must accept the shortsightedness of the general white community and they must accept that this shortsightedness will manifest itself not through the uplifting of black people, but through the slow integration of them into white spaces so they can be continually surveilled, controlled, and policed. In the above quote, Baldwin confronts his nephew with this bitter truth: in the end, it will be black people who will have to accept white people as they are, with all of their fallibilities, because for white people, “to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.” This brief essay shows how ultimately, it is still people of color who have to live out the negative ramifications of whiteness, precisely because they will be the ones who will have to “accept them.”

Despite this, white people still need to be loved because they have been raised to believe in their superiority only to the extent that it is juxtaposed against the supposed inferiority of black people. And this love is not the affectionate kind; it is the kind of love that involves deep self examination and deeply pluralistic dialogue where one risks losing aspects of knowledge in order to gain new pieces of truths. It is the kind of love that means seeing in others the humanity and the potential that may have historically been allocated to anyone other than said community.

When a whole community’s identity only exists within the context of this power dynamic, challenging it is akin to “any upheaval in the universe” that “profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality.” When one’s worth is only defined in relation to another community’s, this is not a reason to despise this person. Rather, it is all the more reason to sympathize with him or her as they are nothing without the supposed inferiority of black people. This is why Baldwin goes on to claim to his nephew, “these men are your brothers—your lost, younger brothers.”

They are lost and younger because their vision is blurred by the lie that they have something towards which black people can aspire to. As Baldwin states, “there is no reason for you to try to become like white people;” this is precisely the case because it is white people who are in need of the black man, and not the other way around. Black people are the older siblings because they have lived the unmitigated reality of the United States and as a result they understand that white people are not, in fact, intrinsically better in any way and the work that is left to be done now is not the burden of black people, but the burden of white people, as it is they who must look into their hearts  and ask themselves what their whiteness has meant in the course of this country’s history.




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