My Dungeon Shook: From Baldwin to Ward, a Reflection on “All American Boys”

September 21, 2016

by Courtney C. Hobson

“The country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon.” With this statement, James Baldwin concludes his essay, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” This essay is one half of The Fire Next Time, a book that was published in 1963. For readers who don’t know, James Baldwin is a renowned son of Harlem.  He was a revered member of the pantheon of Black literary figures of the twentieth century. His company includes Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, and Ralph Ellison to name a few, and his work remains influential today.

The Fire Next Time is a work that seeks to make sense of a country that has yet to fulfill its promise to be of the people, for the people and by the people—to borrow the words of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln. In this essay, Baldwin argues that love—not violence—is the answer. He argues that anger leads to self-destruction. But the love  Baldwin suggests is not passive; it is an active love that seeks to challenge the status quo:

“They [white people] are…still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it…if the word integration means anything, this is what it 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.”

This year’s One Maryland One Book selection, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, is a literary example of what happens when one challenges the status quo. After Quinn witnesses the attack on Rashad by Officer Paul Galluzzo, he makes the conscious decision to embrace the reality of race in America and he fights for change, despite the personal ramifications. The fictional Quinn would likely agree with Baldwin’s sentiment that, “We cannot be free until they are free.”

My reading of All American Boys unfortunately coincided with a very tumultuous summer: the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and the deaths of police officers in Dallas, Texas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I woke up every day for weeks with the feeling of a heavy weight on my chest. I turned to books in search of comfort that I was not able to find in the real world.

After reading Baldwin, I turned to The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race. I gravitated to this book because like me, the editor of this work, Jesmyn Ward, turned to Baldwin for comfort. While the narrative voice of the work is a bit disjointed at times, the authors seem to be all in agreement that our “post-racial society” is a myth. This sentiment is best expressed in Isabel Wilkerson’s The Fire This Time essay “Where Do We Go From Here?” Wilkerson describes the Nadir that Black Americans experienced post-Reconstruction—a time in which the development of Black schools and businesses were met with Jim Crow laws.

Some progress was made in the twentieth century with the Civil Rights Movement, but as Wilkerson suggests, “the past few months have forced us to confront our place in a country where we were enslaved for far longer than we have been free.” Like Baldwin four decades ago, the response to this confrontation, according to Wilkerson, should be love. Love for ourselves; love for our history. Which is what I see when I witness Black Lives Matter protests or, most recently, NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s stand (for lack of a better word) regarding  the National Anthem. This is an active love to see our country live up to its promise; a love that is on display. While some may decry the method, a friend of poet, playwright, and professor Claudia Rankine bluntly stated that “the condition of black life is one of mourning.” We do our mourning (and our loving) in public, whether we are marching or with a simple hashtag: #BlackLivesMatter; #SayHerName; or #RashadWasAbsentAgainToday.