I Am Not Your Negro By James Baldwin
Collapsing the time between race relations in the 1960s and modern day America, I Am Not Your Negro is an Oscar nominated film that weaves together the words of activist, essayist, and novelist James Baldwin. Similar to Baldwin’s forthright and nuanced writing style, the documentary subtly launches its essential claim in the opening scene (video clip above).
It’s 1968 and James Baldwin is a guest on the Dick Cavett Show. Stumbling over his words, the talk-show host asks why aren’t black people optimistic – there are black politicians, athletes, and celebrities – surely racial progress is being made.
Flashing his notorious catlike smile, Baldwin subversively responds by saying, “I don’t think there is much hope, as long as people are using this peculiar language. It’s not a question of what happens to the Negro here…The real question is what happens to this country has a whole.” Using skillful editing, director Raoul Peck then cuts to a montage of ominous photographs depicting recent BlackLivesMatter protests as Buddy Guy’s I’ve Got The Blues plays in the background.
Inverting Cavett’s question, Baldwin’s point is this: abolishing racism should not merely be a concern for black Americans, it should be a concern for all Americans. Racism negatively affects us all. We’re in this together and our collective fate depends on it.
Collapsing the time between Baldwin’s interview and the explosive protests in Ferguson, Peck’s point is this: we did not heed the warnings of anti-racist activists like James Baldwin during the Civil Rights Movement, which is why our nation is still tenuously divided along the lines of race in 2017. We haven’t been in this together, and history will continue to repeat itself if this fact is not realized.
What follows in the film is the narrative voice that comes from Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript and various television appearances. Woven together by the common thread of critiquing race in America, I Am Not Your Negro repeatedly touches on the theme that racism stunts our nation’s growth – particularly on a moral and existential level. In the film, Baldwin states:
It’s a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the notion that 10% of the population is beneath them. And until that moment when we the American people are able to accept the fact that I am not a ward of the state, that I am not an object of missionary charity, but rather that I am one of the people that built this country – until that moment, there is scarcely any hope for the American dream because the people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence, will wreck it…You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming monstrous yourself.
Moreover, racism operates as more than a cancerous entity that causes spiritual and moral decay – there are very tangible negative effects caused by racism that impact life outcomes for not only people of color but white people as well.
As a country with the world’s highest GDP, what’s striking in the graphs above is that even when controlled for white Americans, the United States falls far behind other countries in regards to major life outcomes like health and education. All the more striking are the similarities between the countries outperforming America – nations like Singapore, Finland, and Japan. These are countries with more homogenous demographics that are not divided along the lines of race in the way America is divided. Maybe these countries are able to see its population as a collective, and therefore pass policies that benefit everyone as opposed to a select few. In other words, maybe these are countries that are “in it together”.
As Baldwin states in the documentary, “History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we are literally criminals.” Early on, America did not think in terms of brown, black, and white. There were English, French Portuguese, Germans. However, the first instance of “White” in the American lexicon emerged in a 1660 Virginia legislation that stated “any White servant running away in company with Negroes shall serve for the time of said Negro’s absence”.
This law came about because European indentured servants were partnering with enslaved Africans to escape bondage and rebel against the inequitable practices of the wealthy landowning elite. Knowing that the small number of wealthy landowners could not defeat a rebellion by united European indentured servants and African slaves, the ruling aristocracy created marginal privileges for poor Europeans. Acting rationally, these poor Europeans shedded their English, Irish, German identities for a more privileged “white” identity. This shift undercut any collective sense of “we’re in this together”. The rich remained rich. The poor Europeans remained poor. And the Africans remained disenfranchised.
This history adds light to a James Baldwin quote provided near the end of I Am Not Your Negro: “The world is not white. It never was white. Cannot be white. White is simply a metaphor for power.”
We often assume abolishing racism is in the hands of self-interested people of color and altruistic white people. However, knowing how our modern conception of race was constructed to divide a population in order to uphold class power for the wealthy few, we should take heed of the warnings of anti-racist activists like Baldwin. Abolishing racism is an act of self interest for all Americans (barring the ultra-minority of the ultra-wealthy). Echoing these sentiments, Baldwin’s words close the documentary stating “the future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or dark as the future of this country as a whole”.
Let’s not let another 50 years pass where Baldwin’s words still ominously ring true. Let’s realize that our collective fate depends on the abolishment of racism. Let’s realize that that we’re in this together.
In this post, I use the word racism throughout. I, personally, define racism in the following terms:
A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms operate in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color” to endure and adapt over time. This structural view of racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist.