I Am Not Your Negro

So much history and cultural commentary are packed into this 2017 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, narrated with excerpts from James Baldwin’s writings. The story of the civil rights movement is told through the eyes of this important African-American author who knew three key murdered leaders in the struggle: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. At the time of his death in 1987, Baldwin had written thirty pages of a memoir focusing on these three men.

Baldwin’s eloquence moved me. Combined with his dignity and clarity of vision, his understanding of race relations and the dynamics of white bigotry produced a film, which any white American who continues to claim they are not prejudiced or tainted by racism should watch. Slavery, its aftermath, and segregation have left its legacy. As much as Americans would like to believe progress has been made, my impression after looking at the historic footage from the 1960’s alongside news clips of recent events is that the more things change, the more they stay the same–particularly, in consideration of the results of the 2016 presidential election.

One of the many striking statements that Baldwin makes is his response to Robert Kennedy’s opining that in forty years the United States could have an African-American president. Baldwin took umbrage at this bit of condescension that Kennedy wasn’t even aware he was projecting. Baldwin parries: Why should I have to wait forty years for the presidency; I have been here for four hundred years. Another of Baldwin’s statements that sticks in my mind and that illustrates his keen perception and intelligence makes the telling point that the African-American knows the white man better than the white man knows him. The African-American has had to face the white man, and therefore, he sees him. The white man does not see the African-American; he is invisible to him–the point Ralph Ellison was also making in his novel The Invisible Man. Baldwin goes on to state, in fact, the white man, if he sees him at all, sees the African-American as less than human, and until he confronts and examines his own perceptions, there will be no healing of race relations in this country. James Baldwin was right.

This goes for all relations between ethnic, racial, and religious groups. Americans now have a White House occupant who a few days ago called immigrants “animals.” We have a portion of Americans who chose to be blind to racism, claimed it didn’t exist, and voted for the kind of person who makes such statements to succeed an African-American who had fulfilled the duties of the highest office in the land with dignity, competence, and eloquence, and furthermore, without a taint of personal scandal.

I have written elsewhere that the 2016 election represents the triumph of pop culture in the United States. When Baldwin comments on the role of Hollywood movies in shaping his consciousness growing up in Harlem, he supports my contention. Clips of westerns and romantic comedies appear to underscore that fantasy has permeated American culture to the extent that the ability to discern reality has been seriously impaired. Movies have created the image-making industry; they produce idols, standards of male and female beauty, and ideas of heroism. Baldwin had the self-reflection and self-awareness to examine how these images had affected his attitudes. He calls upon all Americans to examine their premises, to develop some self awareness, and most importantly, asks the white American to answer the question why he continues to view the African-American as less than human. Lyndon Johnson, I believe, picked up on Baldwin’s analysis that as long as the poor, downtrodden white American could feel the black American was worse off than he was, he could feel superior.

Consumerism has been an integral part of capitalistic growth. As soon as the television entered the living room, America was inundated in advertisements. This documentary includes a marketing clip featuring a middle-class African-American family as representative of a growing consumer group ready to be exploited. Inherently racist in its tone, it provides another example of treating African-Americans as a commodity to be manipulated in expansion of the economy and not as a human being.

The Negro as a commodity receives further treatment in the segment that replays the debate between James Baldwin and William Buckley, Jr. at Cambridge University in 1965. The question the debaters considered was “Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?” Baldwin forcefully proves the African-American planted and harvested the crops, built the railroads, and worked at back-breaking jobs for low wages. Buckley, on the other hand, comes across as a pompous ass with no convincing arguments, offering rather obtuse, specious meanderings that are impossible to follow.

Given the persistence of racial bigotry and inequality, where do we go from here? That’s the question Dick Cavett posed to James Baldwin in his 1968 interview. In effect, Cavett was asking whether there was any hope for improved race relations in a time of race riots and murders. Today this is still a legitimate question. Barack Obama proposed the notion of hope in his first run for the presidency. Baldwin’s answers that despite the indignities of racial prejudice and the three assassinations–everything that his race has suffered–he has the right to be angry, yet he is optimistic, adding he has to be optimistic as long as he is alive. My take-away, when I have every reason to be sad and depressed at the state of my country, is to repeat that bromide, “As long as there is life, there is hope.” And I hold the hope, at my advanced age, to live long enough to see America correct its course and salvage those truths that we hold self-evident, which are not so evident on the nightly news broadcasts today.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by nancypayne81 on May 20, 2018 at 6:51 pm

    Amen, my friend. Amen…   I pray a lot.   Nancy  


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