I’ve heard many opinions concerning what is and is not appropriate to teach in schools. The battles over curriculum are in high swing. But James Baldwin explains, “the story of the Negro in America is the story of America. And it is not a pretty story.”
The documentary, ‘I Am Not Your Negro,’ uses the words of James Baldwin, a novelist, essayist, playwright, and witness to the civil rights movement. Most of the words come from Baldwin, himself, in lectures and television appearances, or through Baldwin’s words, voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, written in the 1970s as Baldwin worked on a book, never completed, about the lives and deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
When I watch a documentary, I expect to learn about a certain person, or place, or event. James Baldwin, who described himself as a ‘witness,’ had befriended Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers, all important figures in the fight for civil rights. Each of his friends died for the cause they believed in, so I assumed that the documentary would be about the lives and deaths Baldwin’s three friends who all died in the span of 6 years. While Baldwin did focus on the tragic loss of his friends and his deep grief, the documentary was more about the rage, guilt, forgiveness, and denial. It’s the human story of race.
Baldwin is incredibly convicting. A review of the film called Baldwin “a master of the heavy sigh, the raised eyebrow, and the rhetorical flourish,” and the reviewer is spot on. Baldwin understood the deep discordant nature of American history and articulated it with passion, frustration, and clarity. Baldwin explained that Americans are terrified of their private selves. They cannot handle reality and instead prefer fantasy. Americans prefer simplicity and sincerity but in an immature way, says Baldwin. Why are our lives so empty? So vain? Why are we so unable to deal with the reality of the world? The filmmaker Raoul Peck brilliantly intersperses Baldwin’s commentary with films, commercials and images of American popular culture fantasy, which beautifully serves to underscore Baldwin’s blistering assessment. Baldwin states that white Americans invented a “Negro problem” to safeguard their purity and made black Americans into criminals and monsters. According to Baldwin, the root of the black American’s hatred is rage. Rage because the white man will not leave him alone or get out of his way. The root of the white American’s hatred is terror: his bottomless fear of being hated.
Baldwin speaks to race, yes, but searingly to the human condition and to fear, anger, hate, and terror. Baldwin is weary, in the documentary. He is tired of explaining again, and again, who he is, who he is not, and what his country actually is. He grieves for his friends, for Medgar, for Malcolm, and for Martin, cut down in their prime. In the words of a reviewer, “to read Baldwin is to read by him, to feel the flow of his affection, the sting of his scorn, the weight of his disappointment, the gift of his trust.”
Baldwin passed away in 1987, but filmmaker Raoul Peck also uses the footage from Rodney King, and from the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, MO alongside the footage from freedom rides, marches, sit-ins, and protests of the 1950s and 60s. Baldwin never saw Barack Obama elected president, but the footage of Obama’s inauguration walk alongside Baldwin’s commentary demonstrated that as much progress as we’ve made, we are still refusing to accept, understand, and deal with the past.
Baldwin insists he is an optimist, which is what it means to be human. But also that we must face the past and our humanity. “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed without being faced.”
Appropriate and powerful words as we enter the Lenten season.
A.O. Scott, “Review: ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ Will Make You Rethink Race,” New York Times, February 2, 2017.
Photograph https://www.europeana.eu/en/blog/audre-lorde-james-baldwin-and-astrid-roemer. Title: The author James Baldwin during a visit to the Netherlands. Date: 1965. Institution: Jewish Historical Museum. Provider: Judaica Europeana/Jewish Heritage Network. Providing country: Netherlands. Public Domain.