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James Baldwin

I Am Not Your Negro, I Am a Man: The Lucid Passion of James Baldwin


The racial question is not only one of institutional politics, but of the way of life of the world as we know it.

“The history of blacks in America,” wrote American poet, novelist, and activist, James Baldwin, “is America’s story, and it’s not a pretty story.” In the middle of the last century, when the civil rights struggle witnessed the rise and fall of rebels like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, James Baldwin sought to make a difference on the battlefields of words, for recognition of “the other” and for the impossibility of pessimism while we’re still living.

The film I Am Not Your Negro, by Haitian director, Raoul Peck, is a powerful documentary which rescues Baldwin’s own unfinished project, Remember This House. In fact, Baldwin appears as a screenwriter for I Am Not Your Negro, and renowned actor, Samuel L. Jackson, lends his voice to the writer’s lucid words. The racial hatred and violence has dominated not only the United States but, for some 500 years, in all of the Americas, they’re more alive than ever, as is the hope for a better future.

Baldwin composed only some 30 pages of Remember This House in numerous letters to his editor over the course of 1979. The idea was to tell the story of the United States through three key figures in the struggle for civil rights: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, all murdered in cold blood, and all close friends of Baldwin.

Peck’s astounding montage allows Baldwin’s words to resonate and contrast with the reality of “white America,” with the American dream, with the game shows and talk shows, and with the entertainment industry and consumerism. The function of all of these, according to Baldwin, is to comfort whites, to reassure them of their position of power, and to avoid taking a stand on the social and racial inequality of the black population, as well as those of other populations in the country.

The film has received excellent reviews since its premiere. It’s also provoked a furor in the theaters where it’s been screened, although spectators are never identified as “persons of color,” nor as minorities, nor even as homosexuals, all of which, Baldwin was himself. The story unfolded before our eyes is the story of the United States and the world in general, turning a deaf ear to the pain and oppression of millions of human beings, even today in conditions of slavery. Their stories continue to be denied or minimized because their bodies and their work are used by capitalism to reproduce the illusions of consumption and social success as the sole engines of the human aspiration in our times, just as they were in the time when Baldwin wrote and lived.

Still image from I Am Not Your Negro

Unlike other documentaries, I Am Not Your Negro is not really a biography, nor is it a work aimed at aestheticizing or presenting a digestible version of recent history. Viewers can’t remain indifferent – if anything within them is capable of empathy – in the face of the suffering in which they participate both voluntarily and involuntarily. It’s an uncomfortable – even an extremely uncomfortable film. It’s therefore, more necessary than ever to understand and wonder at why our civilization and the Western way of life have as yet not solved the question of equality among human beings and this despite all of the medical, technological and scientific advances we see every day in the news. It’s a call for attention to a general conscience, a call not to be indifferent to the suffering of our own countries as well as to the rest of the world. It’s also a way of saying that while we’re still living, pessimism isn’t a valid option.

As Baldwin put it:

I can’t be a pessimist because I am alive. The question you gotta ask yourself –the question the white population has to ask itself—is why was it necessary to have a Negro in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. And you gotta find out why. The future of the country depends on that.

*Images: 1) Wikimedia Commons; 2) From the official trailer I Am Not Your Negro

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