January 19, 2016

Godspeed, Your Uncle James

At the marathon #MLKNOW commemoration of Martin Luther King at The Riverside Church yesterday, Chris Rock read James Baldwin's "My Dungeon Shook." As the subtitle says, it was written in 1963 as a "letter to my nephew on the one hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation."

Baldwin opens with a powerful observation of what it's like to know someone from the time they're born, and it builds from there:

Now, my dear namesake, these innocent and well-meaning people, your countrymen, have caused you to be born under conditions not very far removed from those described for us by Charles Dickens in the London of more than a hundred years ago. (I hear the chorus of the innocents screaming, "No! This is not true! How bitter you are!"--but I am writing this letter to you, to try to tell you something about how to handle them, for most of them do not yet really know that you exist. I know the conditions, under which you were born, for I was there. Your countrymen were not there, and haven't made it yet. Your grandmother was also there, and no one has ever accused her of being bitter. I suggest that the innocents check with her. She isn't hard to find. Your countrymen don't know that she exists, either, though she has been working for them all their lives.)

Well, you were born, here you came, something like fourteen years ago: and though your father and mother and grandmother, looking about the streets through which they were carrying you, staring at the walls into which they brought you, had every reason to be heavyhearted, yet they were not. For here you were, Big James, named for me--you were a big baby, I was not--here you were: to be loved. To be loved, baby, hard, at once, and forever, to strengthen you against the loveless world. Remember that: I know how black it looks today, for you. It looked bad that day, too, yes, we were trembling. We have not stopped trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other none of us would have survived. And now you must survive because we love you, and for the sake of your children and your children's children.

Rock's reading starts 1:44:00 into the archived livestream video. I'll update the video when the standalone clip turns up.

#MLKNOW archived livestream [livestream.com]
MY DUNGEON SHOOK
LETTER TO MY NEPHEW ON THE ONE HUNDREDTH ANNIVERSARY OF THE EMANICIPATION, by James Baldwin
[valdosta.edu]

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