In 1963, author James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, which helped set the scene for the upcoming turmoil in American race relations.
This book specifically contained an essay entitled “My Dungeon Shook,” an open letter to his nephew. This essay is not only powerful—it has also been assigned to incoming freshmen as a part of this year’s Penn Reading Project.
The Penn Reading Project is an annual initiative that all Penn first–years go through. It’s a chance for them to read or interact with different media based on the year’s theme. From there, they discuss the topic with faculty and fellow classmates during the week of the academic year.
This year, Penn chose the theme of civic engagement.
Although the Penn Reading Project isn’t required for upperclassmen, this year’s theme is particularly important for everyone. With the Black Lives Matter movement prominent in the news, Baldwin’s essay is a necessary read.
Published at a time when segregation was still rampant, Baldwin’s essay reaches through the racial gap and pulls all readers into his shoes. In a world where it can be difficult to perceive society from another’s perspective, as we are often separated by social and financial constraints, Baldwin aims to do just that. Even from his very first words, Baldwin makes the reader see through his eyes. He starts, “Dear James: I have begun this letter five times and torn it up five times.” In saying this, Baldwin portrays his inner conflict while drafting this letter, a conflict that anyone in our modern world might feel while drafting a difficult text.
He continues this pattern of writing, reinforcing the connections between himself and the reader. He makes a comment about his nephew’s father, and says, “I don’t know if you’ve known anybody from that far back; if you’ve loved anybody that long, first as an infant, then as a child, then as a man, you gain a strange perspective on time and human pain and effort.” He’s not just talking to his nephew—he’s speaking with the reader. He can be pretty certain whether his nephew has experienced this, but the same could not be said about his readers. Baldwin's ability to exist in conversation allows readers to feel like they’re on Baldwin’s side. They know this experience and wish they could explain it to Baldwin’s nephew as he is doing.
Even when he’s discussing stories unique and personal fragments, there's still fragments that hit home for the reader. He talks a bit about his brother to give his nephew a greater understanding of their family when he says, “Let him curse and I remember him falling down the cellar steps, and howling, and I remember, with pain, his tears, which my hand or your grandmother’s so easily wiped away.” This specific story evokes pity for Baldwin and his wistfulness towards this narrative from his past. We’re further made to realize that we are no different than Baldwin—even though he is the writer, he also is one of us.
The kinship Baldwin forms with readers strengthens his argument and get the reader to try understanding what it’s like to be Black in America. By first creating a bond through these commonalities, he’s able to push past barriers of race, class, and gender to remind of us a basic truth: You don't need to be Black to understand systemic racism. It touches all of us, even those who benefit.
When he finally brings up many issues that are still relevant today, the reader finds it easier to understand his perspective. He warns effectively warns his nephew, “You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were Black and for no other reason.” At this point, the reader trusts him, swaying them to respect this opinion.
This essay isn’t merely some statement on race relations in America or a lesson to Baldwin’s nephew, it’s a work of art. It’s truly a masterpiece, filled with emotional peaks and valleys that take reader on a ride they didn’t see coming.
I was very moved by Baldwin’s writing. It spoke to me, and I even nearly cried halfway through reading it. It’s one thing to read an argumentative piece about a specific topic. It’s another to paint a picture and place the reader center stage.
This essay shouldn’t just be a Penn Reading Project assignment. Everyone at Penn should read this. I merely read it as an assignment, but found myself pulled in by the writing and the world that Baldwin created. It doesn’t matter that this essay was written back in the 1960s. It's still very relevant today.