James Baldwin Has a Question

I Am Not Your Negro a film by Raoul Peck.  With James Baldwin, Samuel L. Jackson, Dick Cavett. ****1/2

In a way I wish the title of this film had gone further.  The speech in the movie that it most closely reflects it is one by James Baldwin on a television interview: “What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger 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.”  Maybe director Raoul Peck thought it too shocking to use nigger in the title.  But I think that’s what he meant.

The IMDb website says that this film was made from an unfinished novel by James Baldwin, but that isn’t my understanding (do people these days even know what a novel is?  Do they understand it’s a work of fiction?).  What the film says is that Baldwin was working on a nonfiction book about three men, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all of whom Baldwin knew, and all of whom were murdered, Evers and King by white men, Malcolm X by black men, though all three were victims of the racial wars in this country.  Baldwin was outspoken on the subject of race all his life.  So he would no doubt have written a great book, but never finished.  Samuel L. Jackson narrates the film, and reads from the thirty pages of the manuscript that were complete.

There is also footage of various appearances Baldwin made on television: he was a great interview subject and extemporaneous speaker.  One appearance on the Dick Cavett show is especially important, as is a debate that Baldwin engaged in with William F. Buckley at Cambridge in the mid-sixties.  At least I think that’s what the footage was from.  I can’t find the credits for the various segments.

As a would-be writer in the mid-Sixties, I was obsessed with anyone who ever published a book, and especially admired Baldwin; I read into various of his books that my parents had around—they seemed too complicated and difficult for me (I suspect they were just too sophisticated)—but did read The Fire Next Time in paperback.  I happened to tune in to the debate with Buckley at Cambridge.  As a Baldwin admirer, I cringed when Buckley got up with his patrician air and seemed to state a number of unanswerable arguments.  I figured that Baldwin, who seemed so much younger, was done for.  (I was the most politically unaware person on earth.  I just loved writers, and loved seeing them on TV.)  But Baldwin, who had been a preacher at an early age, proceeded to give the most eloquent extemporaneous rebuttal I could imagine.  The apparently buttoned-down Brits gave him a standing O.  Buckley, always a good sport, stood there with a shit-eating grin.[1]

The thing about Baldwin was that he was thoughtful, eloquent, and—despite the fact that he was slight and sensitive—unafraid to say what he thought.  There were plenty of great talkers on television in those days—Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal immediately come to mind—but not many were black, and I don’t know of any as fearless as he.  He wasn’t a politician.  He didn’t have a constituency.  He said what he thought and didn’t care how people took it.

For me there were two central moments in the film, which was quite wrenching and sometimes difficult to watch (Peck didn’t limit himself to footage from Baldwin’s day, included some scenes from our own disputes, letting us know that not much has changed).  One was when Baldwin described the emotions on either side of the racial divide, and Peck showed—cannily, I thought—scenes from The Defiant Ones, in which Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier were convicts chained together and trying to escape captivity.  That image of white and black men chained together was perfect.  Both were furious, and at one point rolled down a hill, fighting and clawing and spitting.  It was a scene from hell.

Baldwin said that the white man’s feeling was terror, which made him an oppressor in the first place.  The black man’s was rage at being oppressed.  That strikes me as exactly right.  It’s the same thing Albert Murry said in his long (and sometimes hilarious) disquisition on the same subject.

Different men feel these emotions to different degrees.  I have no doubt Albert Murray felt rage, but he expressed it in a whimsical, lighthearted, ironic fashion, said repeatedly that he thought his race was superior.  Baldwin’s emotions seem closer to the surface, perhaps because he dealt with being gay as well.  He sat on those talk show like a sizzling bomb, waiting to be triggered.[2]

The other key moment came in the Cavett interview, which was very Sixties television, and ignorant white man (I felt exactly as Cavett did at the time.  I was just as ignorant).  He more or less began the interview with the question, Gee, things are so much better, segregation is over, black people are succeeding in so many fields, baseball, football, why aren’t you happier?  He then—to shore up his position even further—brought on a professor from somewhere or other (a man I’d never heard of) who more or less said (another thing I might have said): why do you identify so much with being black?  Why don’t you just call yourself a writer?  You probably have more in common with most writers than you do with most black people.

The film by the time we got to that point made it clear that that was not true.  Baldwin had expatriated early in his life, lived as a writer in Paris, and he had done well, he could have stayed there forever.  But he realized when he saw the stories of schools being integrated in the South—when he saw one particular photograph, of a dignified young black woman surrounded by jeering white guys—that he had to return to this country, he couldn’t stay in Europe while this struggle was going on.

And he more or less said to this white professor—at least this is the way I heard it—I identify as black because, as a black person, I feel my life is in danger.  People are beaten and killed and spat on for being black all the time.  I don’t have a choice about identifying as a black man.  I have to do it.

But he was nobody’s Negro, nobody’s nigger, as he made clear by the speech I quoted earlier, which came toward the end of the film.  The movie had shown us by that time that many black men were not.  They refused to accept that role.  White men make blacks into niggers, try to emasculate them, because they need to.  Baldwin asks us why that is.

Let me give the entire quotation.  “The future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright, or as dark, as the future of the country.  It is entirely up to the American people whether or not they’re going to try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger 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’ve got to find out why.  And the future of the country depends on that.”

[1] I thought of Buckley as an arrogant conservative bully in those days.  Little did I know.

[2] Murray made it clear in The Omni-Americans that he didn’t much care for Baldwin.  I’m not sure why.