The point of reading James Baldwin or even seeing his thoughts on screen in the documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” is not to revel in his telling off the “White Man” (the power structure) and putting him in his proper place, the point is to do something about the situation that he articulates.
And Baldwin drops knowledge in this documentary produced by Raoul Peck, as if they were bombs. Of US society he said, it “has no moral justification and thus no moral authority.” He said of US history, “the story of the Negro [Black] history is the story of America.” “Moral monsters” is what he calls those complicit in racism.
According to the writer, “White is a metaphor for power and it is simply a way for describing Chase Manhattan Bank.” And with that he nails the confluence of race and class in North America.
While captivating its audience with brilliant and poignant videography, the film captures the US in all of its racial hypocrisy very neatly interweaving the conflicts in the 1960’s deep South and Northern ghettos, with pictures of the conflict in Ferguson and the seemingly ubiquitous police violence.
The film reveals that Baldwin’s witness was as much to White America as it was to Black America, he talked a lot about the idea that in solving the race problem White folks would in effect save their own souls and ultimately their country.
Speaking of souls, there is a particularly telling sequence in which a White Christian woman is pictured saying that God could forgive thieving and even murder, but “God doesn’t forgive race mixing.” Baldwin’s mistrust of the Christian church was well founded.
When he rather poignantly states that the task of Americans is to find out why the Negro is needed in the first place, he comes closest to the understanding that leads us to the root cause.
As he correctly states in the documentary, by the time Malcolm X and Martin King died they were in the same place politically, they both understood that it was the social/ political/ economic system, capitalism that was the source and reason for the existence of racism. And as Malcolm had so plainly articulated, you can’t have capitalism without racism. Why is the Negro needed? So that the White working class can be duped into a false sense of solidarity with the White ruling class rulers of whom they have nothing in common, except skin color.
Baldwin states that, those who have stolen us and are complicit in our present suffering require of us a song. The song is required to relieve the masters and the co-conspirators guilt. Because of this insanity and the enormity of the crime, this socio-path has a need to have you tell him “life ain’t so bad” because if it is, it suggests he/she may be the cause of your unhappiness. And they can’t live with that.
Like the liberal Yale professor that Baldwin puts in his place, they like the idealized version of the US; they don’t really want to know the truth.
Unfortunately, the film includes a historical error that has to be corrected. When the narrator Samuel Jackson (whose somewhat haunting voice captures the spirit of Baldwin) claims that, “He [Baldwin] didn’t hate White people and he rejected the racial politics of the Black Panthers and the Black Muslim movements.” Baldwin actually repeats the misconception that was foisted on the public about the Black Panthers by the Big Business press. The Panthers were a revolutionary organization that was opposed to racism and capitalism and did not hate White people, but rather hated the White Power structure.
“I Am Not Your Negro,” skims over Baldwin’s homosexuality. But we should not skim over it, because Baldwin in every way was one of us. He stood by, for and with us! Some have convinced themselves that some of us count more than others and that male homosexuality is an affront to masculinity.
But who had bigger “balls” than James Baldwin?
Malcolm X (who respected Baldwin immensely, commenting on how the power structure controlled and orchestrated the 1963 March of Washington) laughingly said those running the program wouldn’t let Baldwin speak because “he was liable to say anything [radical].”
Interestingly, Baldwin identified as Black and human, he assumed correctly that he like the rest of his brothers and sisters were catching hell first and foremost because they were Black. He was clearly comfortable in his own skin and didn’t feel the need to separate his struggle from the broader struggle. He wasted little time (publicly) chastising fellow Blacks for their homophobia, though he took on those who tried to make an issue of it.
Everyone will likely take something different from the film, but it sends one unmistakable message, and that is something is deeply wrong and flawed with this nation that continues to be racist at its core. Baldwin said, “If I’m not a nigger here and you invented him — you, the White people, invented him — then you’ve got to find out why.” And once we have discovered the truth we have to act upon it.
When the struggle for Black rights broke out in earnest in this country Baldwin recalled that, “I could simply no longer sit around Paris discussing the Algerian and the black American problem. Everybody was paying their dues, and it was time I went home and paid mine.”
Indeed must Baldwin and our prophets Martin, Rosa, Gloria, Malcolm, Medgar, Fannie, Ella, Paul, Frederick, John, Harriett and countless others bear the cross alone? No the cross of justice, racial, social and otherwise should be borne by us all!
Justice then peace