As our country grapples with the racial wounds exposed by the killing of George Floyd by a white policeman, the 2017 Oscar-nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, is back for an encore performance in streaming venues–an extraordinary film that meets the moment. James Baldwin is one of the greats in American literature. When he died from stomach cancer in 1987, he was only sixty-three, and yet he’d managed to live far longer than his three friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The film begins with a letter to his literary agent in the summer of 1979. James had begun working on a book about the lives and deaths of the three men, and the filmmaker uses Baldwin’s notes from his unwritten manuscript as a starting point to explore the writer’s observations about racism in America, which are interwoven with film footage and images from the Civil Rights movement and beyond, to Watts and Oakland and Trayvon Martin and Ferguson and more.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” James Baldwin
The Civil Rights movement is what brought Baldwin back to the U.S. Not permanently, but long enough to bear witness. In 1948, at age twenty-four, he moved to France to escape the racism he’d experienced throughout his young life. Nine years later he was an established writer, but he did not miss the country where he was born.
One day on the streets of Paris a photograph calls out to Baldwin from the newsstand. A 15-year-old black girl, Dorothy Counts, is making her way to the entrance of a high school in Charlotte, NC, surrounded by a mob of angry white students. “It filled me with both hatred and pity, and it made me ashamed,” he says. “Some one of us should have been there with her.” Later, back in America, an eye witness tells Baldwin, “Spit was hanging from the hem of Dorothy’s dress.” The year was 1957, and some states were having a hard time accepting the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision on Brown vs. the Board of Education. That same year in Little Rock, AR, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to escort nine black students to a white public school amid violent protests. Staring calmly into a news camera, one white woman says, “God forgives murder and adultery, but he is very angry and actually curses all who integrate.”
To watch this film is to immerse yourself in the distinctive and very urbane presence of James Baldwin. There is footage from his lectures at universities in the States and in England; he is memorably interviewed by Dick Cavett on Dick’s celebrated talk show; he comments on the Hollywood films that influenced or frightened him, and he recalls exactly where he was when the news came that Medgar (in 1963) and Malcolm (in 1965) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (in 1968) had been shot and killed. The film is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson with words culled from James’s published and unpublished works. Jackson disappears into the role of James Baldwin. His words are eloquent but precise; searing but humane. These are the ones I can’t stop thinking about:
“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”
“The Negro has never been as docile as white Americans wanted to believe. That was a myth. We were not singing and dancing down the levee. We were trying to keep alive. We were trying to survive in a very brutal system.”
“The economy of the U.S. was built by black people. In the South, it was cotton. In the North, it was textiles.”
“History is not the past. It is the present. The world is not white. It cannot be white–it never was. White is a metaphor for power. It’s simply a way of describing the Chase Manhattan Bank.”
“When any white man in the world says, ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ the entire white world applauds. When a black man says the exact same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one and everything is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.”
“Apathy and ignorance. . . That’s what segregation means. You don’t know what’s happening on the other side of the wall because you don’t want to know.”
“No other country has been so fat, so sleek, so safe, so happy, so irresponsible, and so dead. No other country can afford to dream of a Plymouth and a wife and a house with a fence and the children growing up safely to go to college and become executives and then to marry and have the Plymouth and the house and so forth. A great many people do not live this way and cannot imagine it and do not know that when we talk about democracy, this is what we mean.”
Listening to James Baldwin speak, one might think he was educated at a place like Yale or Cambridge. He was not. Born in Harlem to a single mother, he distinguished himself at his public high school but put off the idea of college to help support his brothers and sisters. When James was three, his mother had married a Baptist minister, but his stepfather died on the same day she gave birth to her ninth child, a year after James graduated from high school. He credits a young white school teacher as the reason he was unable to hate whites. She talked to him–a boy of ten–about books and the world. She took him to films and to the theatre, a world he never would have seen but for her. About his decision to leave his own country, he said, “In America I was free only in battle, never free to rest. And he who finds no way to rest cannot long survive the battle.”
What killed George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020 was a policeman’s knee pinning his neck to the ground for almost nine minutes. In the film, Baldwin talks about a May 1963 meeting that attorney general Bobby Kennedy asked him to set up with some prominent Negroes. Lorraine Hansberry was there. Bobby was thirty-eight. Lorraine was only thirty-three (she would die from cancer at thirty-four) but she was the first black playwright and youngest American to win a N.Y. Critics’ Circle Award for her Broadway play A Raisin in the Sun. Earlier that month there had been a march for freedom in Birmingham, AL, the most segregated city in the south. At the end of the meeting Lorraine said to Bobby, “We would like from you a moral commitment. I am very worried about the state of the civilization which produced the photo of the white cop standing on that Negro woman’s neck in Birmingham.”
Dorothy Counts, the school girl who made headlines, still lives in Charlotte. Her parents withdrew her from the school after only a few days for her own safety, and they sent her to Philadelphia to live with an aunt and finish high school. In 2010, however, the same Charlotte high school that scorned Dorothy named a library after her. Last year students invited her back to honor her with a bench with her name on it placed outside the entrance to the school. This time students cheered her name.
The filmmaker, Raoul Peck, said he was introduced to James Baldwin at the age of seventeen, just before he started college in Berlin. Peck was born in Haiti, but two black American friends in Germany urged him to read The Fire Next Time, a book of two essays: one about his early life in Harlem; the other an impassioned plea against racial injustice. “It changed my life,” said Peck. Many years later when he began working on the documentary, he was given access to all of Baldwin’s work by his estate, which is managed by James’s sister. In a talk Peck gave at Lincoln Center in NY (which I watched on YouTube) after the Oscar nomination, he said, “As a filmmaker, you need to tell a story so that the film is still relevant in fifty years.” Peck went looking for the book Baldwin had intended to write. He had thirty pages of notes and a title, Remember This House, but no manuscript. This film is his vision of the story Baldwin might have told if he were alive today.