James Baldwin’s moving final words featured in I Am Not your Negro serve as an immortal message of political maturity to the activists of today
James Baldwin stated that the story of the Negro in America is the story of America itself, and it is that story Raoul Peck beautifully captures in his film, I Am Not Your Negro. The film is based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript on the lives of his three friends: Medgar Evans, Malcolm X and Dr Martin Luther King Junior.
Samuel L. Jackson narrates Baldwin’s voice. Even through his smooth and silky tone, Baldwin’s words still manage to stand out. They penetrate through the mind and lodge themselves uncomfortably within, until you are forced to face reality and really weigh the strength of his words.
In a letter written to his literary agent, Baldwin describes his book proposal as a journey, “because you cannot know what you will discover on the journey, what you will do with what you find, or what you will find will do to you.” And it is precisely that – a journey of beautifully shot scenes through American streets, juxtaposed with archive film and interview footage. It is not just a visual journey, but one that, through Baldwin’s words, the audience must make in their mind. Supported by his eloquence in capturing a complex state of affairs, he offers a scaffold to the curious listener to venture on the journey for themselves. It is these personal reflections on the lessons learnt that I share below:
1. Chapter: PAYING MY DUES
I Am Because We Are
Baldwin begins by discussing the historic case commonly known as ‘Brown vs the Board of Education’, and the struggle black people faced in America to fight for the end of segregated schooling. He focuses on the story of Dorothy Counts, and the film displays archive footage of her “unutterable pride, tension and anguish as she approached the halls of learning, with history jeering at her back”, quite literally, as innumerable white faces goaded and taunted her.
Baldwin talks of his shame, saying, “some one of us should have been there with her!” At this point in time, Baldwin had been living in France and had grown weary of waxing lyrical of the Algerian problem and the black problem in America. One can discover from this that, although interlocution has its place and use, it is rendered entirely meaningless unless it is action-guided and solution-focused.
Dues must be paid is the message I garnered from this. Throughout our histories, our peoples have passed the baton, struggled and sacrificed so we could be here. And the baton must not just be passed on, but it must be carried – and though it may be heavy, we must bear it with strength and compassion.
2. Chapter: HEROES & WITNESSES
One of Baldwin’s intentions in writing a book about his three friends was for their “lives to bang against each other, as a means of instructing the people.” It made me reflect, just as he did, on the people who influenced him, and how very strongly our experiences shape our perspective.
He talks of the old western ‘Cowboys vs. Indians’ movies and the point in which you realise that the “Indian is you!” This genre serves to comfort the white world, that they indeed are heroes and forever on the right side of history. As you grow up, you dishearteningly realise that, in fact, all your favourite superheroes were slyly misogynistic patriots, pregnant with imperial ambition. But then, at some point during this long drawn out epiphany, you receive “instruction”. You read, hear, meet or connect with someone who really and truly “corroborates your reality”, as Malcolm X did for the vast majority of black people in America.
One further wonders, “what is your role in this country and what is your future in it?” Since we live at a time of globalisation, these questions invite others such as, “what is my role on earth? What am I meant to do? As a theist, what does God expect of me?” Baldwin describes himself as a witness, taking it upon himself to “write the story and get out”. Thus, we must also seek to ascertain what role we should play in society: hero, witness, leader, follower… the list goes on. How best can we utilise our unique skill sets to serve our communities? Answering this question, however, is no easy feat and may even take a lifetime to figure out, but nevertheless, it is a conversation one must continue to have.
Later Baldwin discusses how two of the heroes of his journey were often pitted against each other: Martin and Malcolm. But from his unique vantage point, he reflects on how their respective positions shifted towards each other: “…two men coming from unimaginably different backgrounds, whose positions, originally, were poles apart, driven closer and closer together. By the time each died, their positions had become virtually the same position.” The quote is too beautiful not to include in full. “It can be said, indeed, that Martin had picked up Malcolm’s burden, articulated the vision which Malcolm had begun to see, and for which he paid with his life. And that Malcolm was one of the people Martin saw on the mountaintop.” These few lines are among my favourite of the whole film and book as their main lesson is that of political maturity.
You can never chastise someone who is fighting the same battle as you, but perhaps chooses to use a different weapon. Having a wide range of defences can, in fact, be to your ultimate advantage as Martin Luther King saw later in his life. It is the men’s maturity, open-mindedness, and sheer unadulterated sincerity in their willingness to publicly admit their wrongs, that we need to learn to take instruction from. As Malcolm X stated, “I have always been a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life. As new experiences and new knowledge unfolds, I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand-in-hand with every form of intelligent search of truth.” As a mentor I know recently pontificated, changing an opinion comes from a position of increased knowledge and it is knowledge we should seek, above all, to form our actions.
3. Chapter: I AM NOT A NEGRO
In the same speech from which the title of the film, I Am Not Your Negro, is taken, Baldwin doesn’t just negate what he is not, but rather affirms what he is – “I’m not a nigger, I am a man.” Although the negation is important (as it is always of use to dispel that which is not true), I strongly believe it is the affirmation that should be stated loud and clear. Exemplify who you are so strongly, that no one can ever say otherwise. Embody who you are and your principles so loudly, that no one can speak over them.
With thanks to Penguin Random House for sending me this book. You can get a copy of I Am Not Your Negro through their website.
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