Director: Raoul Peck
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Back in the 11th hour of the American Century, the now-extinct species called the American intellectual spoke not only in lecture halls, but also in printed newspapers and magazines, on television programs of all stripes, and especially in books that landed regularly on bestseller lists. James Baldwin, a true American intellectual from the most humble of circumstances, left a long, self-imposed exile in France to witness and become a part of the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, writing articles for such periodicals as The Partisan Review, Mademoiselle, Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker and befriending Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He started a memoir in 1979 whose working title was “Remember This House” that was to revolve around those three slain civil rights leaders and his relationship to his native land. Although it was abandoned after 30 pages, the book has been brought to life by black Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck as the script for I Am Not Your Negro. Through a combination of film clips of Baldwin and Samuel L. Jackson voicing Baldwin’s words from his unfinished book, Peck cogently resurrects Baldwin’s personality and vibrant intellect, showing his words to be not only powerful, but also prophetic.
I’m going to start at the end of the movie, with a taped interview of Baldwin during which he poses a question:
The question the white population of this country has got to ask itself is why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. And you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.
You’ll note that the title of this documentary avoids the very word Baldwin, a writer deeply concerned with the effects of language, asked us to consider. Think about that. Putting the word “nigger” in the title likely would have offended African Americans and shocked liberals of all kinds. It may even have hurt the advertising and distribution plans for the film. Yet if we don’t grapple with the implications of that word, but more important, that construct, as Baldwin asks us to do, this film will have been an exercise in futility.
Peck establishes that Baldwin may have left the United States voluntarily, but that the country never left him and that he has the communal connections, memories, and above all, the right to call himself an American and stake his rightful claim to full citizenship. He even rejects the concept of a civil rights movement, diagnosing instead “failure of the private life . . . the role of the guilty and constricted white imagination” with “white people . . . endlessly demanding that Birmingham is on Mars.” He says that “the Negro has never been happy in his place. When you stand up and look the world in the face like you have a right to be here, you have attacked the entire power structure of the western world. Forget the Negro problem. It’s not a racial problem,” he says, “but whether you’re willing to be responsible for your life.”
I have watched this film three times and am still not done with it. I looked at the angrily contorted faces of white people terrorizing painfully isolated black children trying to go to school, “heroic” movie stars shooting down marauding Indians (or more likely, white men in “red” face), and a final, shocking sequence of Doris Day looking her most angelic as she sings about whether to be “bad” and go all the way with Rock Hudson, followed by black bodies hanging from a tree as white onlookers smile their satisfaction. This sickness, this segregation not only of our physical beings, but also of our lived experiences, has turned many white people into what Baldwin calls “moral monsters.”
Am I a moral monster? I don’t think so, yet I can’t deny that my life rarely intersects with those of African Americans. I used to have black friends—real friends—but there were still gulfs of understanding between us. I was relatively poor, living paycheck to paycheck when I was friends with Bernadette, yet I lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a safe, white neighborhood, and she lived in the projects. I even gave her my space heater after she had a baby so she and her son would not freeze; I never much used it, as the heat in my home was generally adequate. My friend Jacqui and I went everywhere together. We went to a disco in the Loop, which we had to exit quickly when two black men started fighting over who would dance with me. Why was I so important? She spoke with me in a real panic about her hair falling out—I knew nothing about how important hair is to a black woman and offered little in the way of comfort. Then she fell on hard times I couldn’t share with her and vanished. I don’t know where she is today.
I became aware of black anger as a daily condition for some people when I visited the headquarters of my employer in Alexandria, Virginia. The black/white divide was an open wound in this state that had once contained the capital of the Confederacy. Suspicious self-segregation was the order of the day at the office; I was oblivious to the tensions most of the time because I worked remotely, and I blithely sat with my black colleagues when we did team-building exercises during my visits east. I danced in a Soul Train line at one of our Christmas parties, proud that I watched the show and not American Bandstand, vaguely aware that my black coworkers were probably laughing at me.
The most defining moment of my personal education in the ways in which white supremacy operates came during a taxi ride. The cabbie was telling me a story about how he hit a black boy who rode his bike into the car’s path. The cabbie was guilt-stricken at the damage he did to the boy’s legs and spoke about it with real distress. Suddenly, his tone changed. His voice took a sarcastic tone as he came round to blaming the boy for causing his own injuries, almost implying that the boy deserved to have his legs broken. The mental whiplash this strange encounter caused me has never healed; I have no idea what it did to the cabbie.
White Americans, particularly those who are liberal-minded, seem to think we can get past race if we just ignore it. Baldwin, a guest on The Dick Cavett Show, is shown confronting a white academic who complains that Baldwin needs to stop talking about race and argues that what we have in common in terms of our interests and personalities should be the guidepost for future interactions. Baldwin, who says he fled to Paris so that he could continue his work without fear of violent attack, roundly slams him: “You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my life . . . on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.” In a similar vein, I interviewed Harry Lennix in 2013. I asked him about colorblind casting, which seems designed by simpletons to level the playing field for people of all races and ethnicities. He said, “I just saw “The Hollow Crown” on Great Performances, with Jeremy Irons, the other day, and they had a very good actor by the name of Paterson Joseph playing Henry V’s cousin York. But he was black! I’m not aware, in the 14th century in England, of any black person walking around in the court of the king as a fully functional, empowered official of the court. ‘So who is this guy?’ I wanted to know. It took me out just long enough for me to say, I applaud the effort, that’s nice, it’s good that they want to include people, but that is not indicative of an actual experience.”
It is, as Baldwin says, our failure of imagination, our simplicity, that offers such tepid, inconsequential attacks on the construct of the nigger. Baldwin says, “Simplicity is taken to be a great American virtue, along with sincerity. One of the results is that immaturity is taken to be a virtue, too, with no necessity to grow up.” Peck inserts a litany of apologies coming from everyone from Ronald Reagan to the Clintons and Eliot Spitzer. Like my cabbie’s fleetingly expressed shame, these apologies were given with fingers crossed; these temporarily humbled leaders would commit their crimes, both large and small, again, and would never be made to take responsibility for them. Tellingly, the opposition white establishments take turns playing Parent and Child, with each calling the other out and demanding an apology. In 2017, given the individuals in charge of our country, no one expects to get even the smallest of apologies, black Americans least of all.
Baldwin asserts that “it’s an absolute miracle that the black population has not given into rage and paranoia,” as footage and images of white brutality from Birmingham to Ferguson fill the screen. This miracle, however, has a reason, which Baldwin himself offers in a television interview: “The Israelis pick up guns, or the Poles, or the Irish—every white man in the world says give me liberty or give me death—and the entire white world applauds. But if a black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one, and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.”
And, of course, the film, spends time on the three martyrs Baldwin wrote about, none of whom lived to see 40. I’m particularly embarrassed by a popular 1968 song, “Abraham, Martin and John,” written by a white man and introduced by white teen idol Dion, and note how it lionizes the peaceful black man, and how the song was amended later to include the fallen Bobby Kennedy, a man whom Baldwin asserts was insulted when writer Lorraine Hansberry asked him, as then-U.S. Attorney General, to make a moral commitment to black progress at a 1963 meeting also attended by Baldwin and other black leaders. I’m also embarrassed that 2017 was the first year since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was declared a federal holiday in 1986 that my employer gave its employees the day off. I’m quite sure I will not live to see the federal government declare a Medgar Evers or Malcolm X Day; they did not preach respectability politics or nonviolence, even though Baldwin says that Martin and Malcolm were coming closer to a meeting of the minds that would have been less threatening to white people.
So, have African Americans come as far as white people think they have? Consider that black men were elected to office during Reconstruction; Joe Gans and Jack Johnson won world boxing titles against white opponents in 1902 and 1908, respectively; Madame C. J. Walker became a business scion in America in the 1910s; and integrated schools were known in the 1840s, before the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. These achievements have been more normalized in 2017, and, of course, we’ve had a black president, just about when Bobby Kennedy predicted in 1963 we would, outraging Baldwin with his arrogance as an Irish johnny-come-lately to America.
But I understand Bobby. His ancestors were hated and rejected, and so were mine. But he was and I am white. We eventually assimilate because our difference doesn’t show. As a Jew, I know I feel safer because someone else is targeted. I didn’t participate in slavery, nor did my ancestors in this country, but that doesn’t make me innocent of accepting the protections my skin color affords me. I move with relative ease and have absorbed some of the fear of black people I’ve been taught. When I was in South Africa after the fall of apartheid, it was the whites who were afraid of reprisals for their heinous behavior toward the black majority. Today, in America, I believe that white fear of facing our insanely cruel history in the name of commerce and comfort has allowed the worst elements of our society to run amok. I fervently hope we take a page out of recent South African history and set up our own truth and reconciliation commission to tour our country and pay more than lip service to our collective guilt, before widespread violence becomes the only recourse.