i am not your negro is the message white people need to hear
Written by Megan Stringer, Co-Editor-in-Chief
Editor's note: This piece includes quotes from James Baldwin in which he uses a racial slur.
Ten people sit in a dark, quiet theatre. Three pairs of young African-American couples, three older white women, and myself – young, white, woman.
The new James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro has met its audience quota so far. Just like Baldwin himself, I believe the documentary aims to educate the young, white, artistic liberals on their position in today’s race relations in America – and how their job hasn’t changed one bit since 1927. Director Raoul Peck places clips from movies, TV and music – historic art archives so treasured by artistic white people of today – and shows the racist stereotypes portrayed by American art at the time.
Opening with a clip from the Dick Cavett show with James Baldwin himself speaking, the documentary aims to tell the story of Baldwin’s beliefs through his unfinished 30-page novel Remember This House. Baldwin wanted to tell the story of three prominent and controversial figures speaking on race during his lifetime. They were also his friends.
Through the eyes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, Baldwin finds his own place in the fight for racial equality. He understands that it doesn’t come easily.
Baldwin makes clear he is a writer more than anything. But more than a writer, Baldwin is a human. He writes to express his thoughts on his position in America, on why he left behind what was supposed to be this great country, what he found when he returned and how his life was inherently tangled up in the mess that became America not only in the '60s, but now in 2017 as well.
Baldwin’s words mean the same thing today as they did on the Dick Cavett show in 1968.
King’s words mean the same now as they did standing in front of a podium in his suit and tie in 1964.
For that reason, the documentary shows clips from King’s speeches. It shows streets full of reactive power, shows black and white protest, shows the spoken, written and recorded words of America’s ugly past.
Juxtaposing TV, film and song clips from the ‘20s through the ‘60s with black and white footage of Ferguson, Mo. in August 2014, Peck reminds viewers that the same racist treatment still occurs in our streets.
While many young people might know the importance of King’s speeches, did they ever listen to the words themselves? Did they ever hear the boom of an impassioned man’s voice in front of angry, white young people? Did they ever run into the streets to protect equality and humanity as actively and often as they can?
For the most part, no.
According to an interview with NPR, Peck struggled with making this documentary for so long because he knew how necessary it was to include the words of Baldwin, King and Malcolm X.
“How do I make sure that people today come back to Baldwin and the important writer that he was, and the important words that he have written, and [have] this well-needed confrontation with reality today with words that he wrote 40, 50 years ago?" Peck asks.
James Baldwin would be disappointed in 2017 America, in the Times Square takeover of teenage, glazed-over eyeballs and the lack of chicken and waffles served on Coney Island.
With I Am Not Your Negro, Peck uses the words and life of Baldwin to remind all the young, white liberals of today that their job is not an easy one. Their job is one of constant battle, of reminding their peers of inequality, of acknowledgement of their own place in systematic oppression.
"What white people have to do is try to find out in their hearts why it was necessary for them to have a nigger in the first place,” Baldwin said once, as shown in the film. “Because I am not a nigger. I'm a man. If I'm not the nigger here, and if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it is able to ask that question."
According to Baldwin, it’s not our fault that this happened in the first place. The problem was inevitable. But now the inevitable problem has become our problem to fix, because we are the only ones who can fix it.
We are the only ones who can stand up and say no. We are the only ones who can tell the system that something is not right. We can’t just say it once, but every day, over and over again, until we die. We owe it to America. We owe it to equality. We owe it to our brothers and sisters of different skin tones all across this country. Our ancestors might have caused the problem, but now it’s ours for the fixing.
As Peck intertwines art and popular culture into the documentary, his message is heard loud and clear. To all the young, white artistic liberals who have cultivated their love of historic art – look at the racism it included, at the racism it still does.
The screen goes black and Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry” blasts through the speakers in the ear of every audience member and out the next. Most likely, this is a familiar tune for the audience. They’ve bumped to it at parties and stomped their feet in the car with their friends.
Did they listen to the lyrics before? Are they listening now?
As Baldwin and Peck reflect on the stagnant state of race relations in America, Shredded invites you to reflect – on this topic, or on any other. Visit our Let’s Talk section of the website to view our full prompt about Reflections. We’ll never be done discussing some topics, so reflect with us this month and let’s talk.
Contact Megan by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Instagram @meganticss.