- Introduction: Stumbling on our Past, Reflections on James Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook”
As I read “My Dungeon Shook,” my thoughts went to Hans Loewald and his beautiful description of a parental function in which the parent, holding a version of the core that the child presents to him, mediates a vision of growth and future. In “On the Therapeutic Action of Psychoanalysis,” Loewald writes:
The parent ideally is in an empathic relationship of understanding the child’s particular stage of development, yet ahead in his vision of the child’s future and mediating this vision to the child in his dealing with him. This vision, informed by the parents own experience and knowledge of growth and future is ideally a more articulate and more integrated version of the core of being that the child presents to the parent. The more that the parent sees and knows, he mediates to the child, so that the child in identification with it, can grow. The child, by internalizing aspects of the parent, also internalizes the parents’ image of the child—an image that is mediated to the child in the thousand different ways of being handled bodily and emotionally.(1960, pg. 20)
Hold that image next to the painful dilemma described by Baldwin in The Fire Next Time:
Every effort made by the child’s elders to prepare him for a fate from which they cannot protect him, causes him secretly, in terror, to begin to await, without knowing he is doing so, his mysterious and inexorable punishment. He must be “good” not only in order to please his parents and not only to avoid being punished by them; behind [End Page 295] their authority stands another, nameless and impersonal, infinitely harder to please and bottomlessly cruel. And this filters into his consciousness through his parents’ tone of voice, as he is being exhorted, punished or loved; in the sudden uncontrollable note of fear in his mother’s or his father’s voice when he has strayed beyond some particular boundary.(1963, p. 40)
I thought about “the talk,” a responsibility left to black parents to caution their children about police, to prepare them for a danger they encounter merely by virtue of their skin color. And thereby, the vision of future, of possibility and growth the parents mediate to their child, is burdened by an ongoing reality of trauma.
In his always eloquent voice, Baldwin challenged White America to acknowledge its disavowed history of racism, and in so doing to have a conversation about the ongoing violence being imposed on their Black countrymen and the damage imposed on themselves. Yet, although Baldwin was widely read and celebrated by many, sixty years later we struggle as a society with the same disavowal and the destruction it wreaks.
What is it about this inability, this refusal, to acknowledge the painful reality that has been with us for centuries, that expresses itself as a failure to remember, to see what is before us? Baldwin writes, “We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is” (1960, p. 105). But we know as psychoanalysts that there is a powerful wish to bury that which makes us uncomfortable, or ashamed, or which leads us to feel we must give up narratives that we have long held to be true. In The Fire This Time (2016), a compelling collection of essays on race in America, Wendy Walters writes, in her essay entitled “Lonely in America,” about an African American burial ground in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that had been struck from memory, seemingly from existence. Walters learned that while city workers were attempting to dig a manhole on a public street, a pine coffin had been discovered with leg bones protruding from the coffin. She found that in 1705 the city had approved a plan to create a Negro Burial Ground. By 1813, houses had been built on the site, and by the time Walters went to explore, and inquired [End Page 296] about the graves, presumably the graves of slaves, she was told, “You can’t see anything. There’s nothing there” (2016...