I Am Not Your Negro is a documentary based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House.
James Baldwin was an author and voice for social justice issues. (He rejected the label of civil rights activist.) In 1948, he left the US for Paris, due to the atmosphere of fear created by racist American society. After seeing a photo of a black woman being taunted and attacked by whites as she walked to a school that she was integrating, Baldwin could no longer remain abroad but returned in 1957. Baldwin then traveled through the south as a witness to the civil rights movement and a writer of his experiences. Through this time, he met and became friends with many prominent folks in the civil rights movement, including Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.
The documentary, based on his unfinished manuscript, is a reflection on these three great figures in the civil rights movement, the civil rights movement itself, and racism in America. Baldwin explains his experiences in the US and those of African-Americans. Clearly a well-read and reflective thinker, Baldwin illuminates for whites the experiences of African-Americans in the US. Time and time again he patiently explains how experiences are interpreted differently by whites and blacks. He provides a stark education to his white audience.
I Am Not Your Negro is a combination of many different media. The movie shows clips of Baldwin giving talks at Cambridge or interviews on The Dick Cavett Show. His own words and thoughts are narrated over images. Clips from movies in his youth are shown that depict African-Americans and whites in different ways. These clips speak to what he explains about life in the US. His three friends are shown as the movie rolls through the late 50s to the late 60s—the deaths of Evers, Malcolm, and King are covered in succession.
Baldwin has a talent for holding a mirror up to us to reflect the soul of America. It shows a sobering portrait—a portrait well-known to African-Americans and unknown by whites who keep themselves in ignorance through formal and informal segregation. Baldwin’s words and description of America speak eerily of the present moment and the film overlays his words on scenes from modern-day America—an America long after his death in 1987.
I suspect that Baldwin would have been insightful despite his self-exile, but being an ex-pat gives one distance from which to view one’s own culture and reflect on one’s experiences. Baldwin’s time abroad likely sharpened his assessment of America and the cancer of racism.
Baldwin did not share a number of things with African-Americans from the 1950s and 1960s. He was not a Muslim or a black panther because he did not believe that all whites were the devil. He was not Christian because Christians, he observed, do not live by the commandment to love one another. He was not a member of the NAACP because that organization was entangled with black class distinctions.
His distance and separation from American culture and membership in variety societal groups gave him a removal from which to observe. Why is Malcolm X liked? Malcolm X, he explained to whites, articulates the suffering of African Americans and corroborates their reality. Whites do not know about the lives of their black brethren. Segregation that occurs after school when we go to our separate homes creates apathy and ignorance.
The commonality between whites and blacks seems to be hatred. The root of black man’s hatred is rage. The root of white man’s hatred is terror. Baldwin explains how a movie scene is seen differently based on one’s racial experiences in America. Rather than getting away to safety, a black convict jumps from the moving train when the white convict is unable to ascend it safely. White liberal audiences, Baldwin points out, love the black man for doing this; it reassures them that they are not hated. Black audiences abhor the scene, calling for the black man to get back on the train.
From his vantage point, Baldwin describes American virtues as simplicity, sincerity, and immaturity. The American hero, portrayed by John Wayne, epitomizes these traits. (Ouch. Wayne is considered to be the pinnacle of masculinity in the US, so this observation suggests that American males are immature and simple. Baldwin’s comments seem timeless.)
Blacks were originally needed for the American economy—to pick cotton. But now they are no longer needed. Will they be killed like the native Americans were? Comments like this made me pause and think about modern slavery through economics and the criminal justice system—and the killing of black men that seems to be an epidemic.
Baldwin also points out that in America and other western countries, whites easily pick up guns and cry “give me liberty, or give me death.” No one bats an eye at that. But if a black man did the same? It would not be interpreted or dealt with in quite the same way. Again, Baldwin’s comments seem timeless.
I Am Not Your Negro is an interesting glimpse into the civil rights movement and the lives of Evers, King, and Malcolm as told through the eyes of an ex-pat author. Baldwin’s comments and perspectives based on his life experiences as a black American in the US and abroad provide food for thought. And it makes me wish that he had finished his manuscript Remember This House.