I Am Not Your Negro, A Review

James Baldwin’s “I am Not Your Negro” succeeds in bridging past and present racial truths earning them a much deserved place in contemporary conversation. One of the most troubling ideologies of contemporary culture is the belief that the turmoil afforded to black life, is isolated, or new. The films succeeds in drawing the necessary connection between current culture and a not so distant past of lynchings, beatings, poverty and murders.

The film takes the reader through time, engaging multiple perspectives and images that will surely engrave themselves into the viewer’s memory indefinitely. Although I have seen pictures of a dying Malcolm X on the stretcher countless times, something about seeing this photo last night caused a hot tear to run down my cheek. We all know that Malcolm is dead, the reminder somehow just seems as cruel as it is necessary. The film issues similar views of Dr. King, and Medgar Evans in their caskets, frozen in time– their words as poignant as their faces. The film also juxtaposes lynched young bodies alongside boys in handcuffs. Both images prove painful to the eye as their subtle juxtaposition illustrated an unfortunate fate issued to far too many black males.

In addition to powerful images like these, the film stays true to Baldwin’s genius. Namely, the film issues a number of resounding phrases from Baldwin that make it hard to believe that three decades have past since his last breath. Baldwin’s words prove eerily insightful if not clairvoyant. His words cause the reader to question whether  America is in fact predictable. Or, have we, as a collective, been too seduced by the idea of change to actually demand it.

Baldwin contemplates these questions, in addition to a number of historical occurrences and dynamics in the following cluster of quotes extracted from the documentary.

“Malcolm was one of those who he saw at the Mountaintop”

A central theme of the documentary is love, a sentiment Baldwin extends to black revolutionaries Medgar Evans, Malcom X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. Slightly older that all three men, Baldwin revisits knowing and losing men he both admired and cherished. History showed us what happens to blacks who uplift their collective. However, Baldwin takes us into the affect these losses yielded to those who loved them in life and were gutted by their murders.

The love Baldwin had for Evers, X and King mirrored the affections they all had for one another. While adapting various approaches, all men possessed a genuine love for their people, and a pride in their culture. All men depicted a kind of valor that seemingly died with them. This valor issued them a form of fearlessness that prompted them to fear oppressive stagnancy more than death. Baldwin referenced King’s final speech in a manner that spoke to this unity. Baldwin wrote “Malcolm was one of those who he saw at the Mountaintop,” seemingly referencing the mountaintop as a destination consummated in the predictable and untimely murders of black revolutionaries.

Watching the film, I could not help but wonder that as I sat in the Lincoln Center theatre listening to his words, if Baldwin listened too from this mountaintop. It seemed that Evers, King and X afforded him alternative perspectives to America, perspectives that transformed him from a figure of comfort to a force to be reckoned with. He mentions being older than Evers, King and X, yet outliving them all– a fact he conveys with a tone of regret, suggesting to viewers that each year granted to him and not to them, murdered the part of him that believed in America in a way that he no longer could.

“One of us should have been there with her.”

Baldwin issues this line in reference to Dorothy Counts’ integrative act. The film showed images of Dorothy Counts-a stunning beauty– walking proudly. Although it seemed that she was just walking to school, she literally and figuratively crossed the segregated line. An act that earned her jeers and threats from white onlookers. Her beauty dominates the picture, but one’s peripheral is bound to capture he contemptuous looks that encompass the background. Baldwin’s sentiments mirror the guilt and responsibility some of the black collective felt after hearing about the murders of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Kalief Browder (yes, from my perspective the system murdered Kalief).

“A Meaningless Moral Gesture”

Baldwin recounts a meeting that he and Lorraine Hansberry had with Bobby Kennedy. During this meeting, they requested that he escort a little girl integrating a school, an act he deemed a “meaningless moral gesture.” This was a sonorous moment of this film, as it provided the necessary truth to suggest that the separatist strategy is not one of hate but one of necessity. Whites are not allies to blacks, simply because the very acts that hurt us helps them—therefore they cannot be trusted to cut off their arm to help us barter our freedom.

“Weakening the ability to deal with the world as it is.”

Perhaps one of the most resonant portion of the film was Baldwin’s engagement with western depictions of blackness on the big and small screen. From Sidney Portier in his”Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” role where Baldwin states blacks deemed him as a  working against black interest, to degrading images like Steppin’ Fechit that rendered no truth to what he saw or knew—Baldwin confronts television as an oppressive tool. He resonantly states that television presents “What we’d like to be versus what we actually are.” On television the white man is a celebrated hero, and the blacks and native Americans are savages and simple fools in need of western civility. These images project the internal contents of western imagination yet function as fact. Baldwin referenced a “grotesque innocence” with regard to popular white images, a combative interpretation of images aggressively placed at the forefront of western culture to imply white superiority. These images operate in sheer contrast to American truth. For whites to depict themselves as embodying innocence when they robbed an entire continent of human being s they appropriated for western gain, is nothing short of bizarre.

“Never had to look at me but I had to look at you.”

The film showed audiences pictures of men and women handing limply from trees, as Baldwin commented on how these horrific acts affected the oppressor. Baldwin states “You Never had to look at me but I had to look at you” to reference the oppressive dynamic. The oppressor never has to admit to the severity of their deeds. There are no moments of remorse, regret, or reflection. Just moments of gloating in a stolen superiority. Baldwin then addresses how white supremacy affects the white supremacist with the following: “ You cannot lynch me and put me in the ghetto without becoming monstrous.” Despite working overtime to imply their superiority, all that whites have done to dehumanize blacks has not actually made blacks inferior but it has made whiteness a monstrous entity. Furthermore, it is not black bodies that have become dehumanized, but the white conscious, or lack theirof, that epitomizes the very humanity they tried to cast onto blacks.

“Nothing can be changed unless it is faced”

Much of Baldwins writing focuses on a journey back from Europe to the United States. The distance between himself and the black collective that birthed him presents him with a since of nostalgia This nostalgia does not discount the oppression that he knows awaits him on the other side of the ocean. But it does cause him to miss the beauty of blackness often overshadowed by white ugliness. He references black style, black cooking and just being near those who birthed and nurtured him as a void unfilled elsewhere. Facing the perils that still face the black in America, is like looking into a mirror that grants instant access to your past and present self. There simply is no escaping the past, or present as an African in America as your African blood not only runs through your fails but in the soil and concrete that dominates the North America.

Through the words he writes, it seems that Baldwin views his journey to Europe as a form of escapism. A form of escapism that proves counter productive as the African in American experience, once encountered is not subject to erasure.

“Bad Nigger”

I particular enjoyed Baldwin’s rhetoric on hue and heroism. Notably that black heroes correspond to an undeserved demonization, whereas their white counterparts correspond to an underserved celebration. A particularly resonant moment in the film is when he speaks of John Wayne. He speaks of John Wayne being a white hero both black and white audiences cheered on, but this cheering halted upon realizing that Wayne murdered Indians, and as an oppressed groups Blacks were the Indians. Furthermore, the western world designs a world where blacks root for their own oppression and whites are praised for their oppressive action. However, when revolutionaries like Malcom X, Medgar Evans and Dr. King work to raise their people from the perils of white supremacy they are treated like national terrors. Namely, their murders symbolize how black bodies that the bear the audacity of pride and self-awareness become examples that must be publicly and brutally eliminated.

“The Story of the Negro in America, is the story of America.”

The displaced African body is not an African in America, they are America. From stripping Africans of their language and culture, to beatings, lynchings, mutilations and murders, the African body is the American land, stolen, raped and reasserted. America is the home of white supremacy, a land that speaks of a freedom created on the backs of the abducted African.

Furthermore, the most poignant point of the film is Baldwin’s assertion of the “nigger” as an American creation. The African, abducted to compose the European settler’s binary opposite, personifies the American error. Thus, he and we are not the American negro, simply because the negro never truly existed.

We are not the figment of American imagination afforded to us as a form of pseudo identity. We are African, and we are human. We are a cluster of attributes, but we are not and never were your negro.

Thank you James Baldwin for your brilliance. I would say that I wish I could have met you, but I feel as though I already have.

May you rest in the peace you afford us all through your writing.