Last night, I saw I Am Not Your Negro at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. It was my Valentine’s Day date with myself.
I Am Not Your Negro tells the story of James Baldwin, from the perspective of the writer himself. The film was narrated by the powerful Samuel L. Jackson, who managed to embody both Baldwin’s relentlessness and his grace. The narration was taken from Baldwin’s writing, much of which wasn’t even about the man himself. He spoke of Medgar Evers, of Malcolm X, and of Dr. King, all of whom he knew personally and whose deaths he recounts with unflinching resilience. He was older than all of them – a fact I did not know.
He was of the movement, living and breathing among them. So why do we never talk about Baldwin when we talk about Malcolm, or King?
Some of the power of “I Am Not Your Negro” lies in the view it allows us of King, Malcolm, and Evers. It’s incredible and horrifying to see them again, first moving and speaking in the real spaces of their lives, and then dead—martyrs to what use and what end? History ate those men while they were alive and continues to chew over their bones in death.
Hilton Als, “Capturing James Baldwin’s Legacy Onscreen”
Baldwin was an educated gay black man, born in Harlem, who spent his early adulthood living in Paris to escape the violent racism of the United States. He returned in 1957, after seeing the iconic images of newly integrated schools in the south, and the violence that followed.
As Baldwin joins Dr. King and Malcolm X in the fight for civil rights, he begins to forge a new path somewhere in a middle ground between the two. He was not in agreement with Malcolm’s more violent approach, and did not join the Black Panthers, partly because they did not approve of his open homosexuality. And though he was once a preacher, he was not as loving towards the “white moderate” than King would sometimes appear to be. Baldwin was both aggressive and graceful, subtle and witty in the same breath as he damned the oppression he fought against, and his white oppressors. If King was derided as an Uncle Tom, and Malcolm decried as a violent, dangerous Black Man, where was Baldwin? His words could not be co-opted by the guilt-dodging “white moderate” – they were still too angry – but he wasn’t quite a feared man like Malcolm X.
[Is it because he was gay?]
As the film went on, after Medgar Evers is shot, and Malcolm X is shot, and Martin Luther King is shot, I wondered where Baldwin’s legacy lives today. If, Like Hilton Als writes, we have been chewing up the bones of these men since they day they died, where does Baldwin lay to rest in our collective memory?
I’d like to think he is not forgotten.
I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all.
But what if he is? What does this mean for our current resistance? How do we forge a new path forward, and who are our role models? After seeing I Am Not Your Negro, I am muddled. As I watched the images of 21st century America flash by, police brutality and tanks raining tear gas on the people of Ferguson, I cried. I knew that my tears were useless, but I didn’t really know what else to do. After all, as Baldwin wrote, “People can cry much easier than they can change.”
Baldwin forged a middle ground of resistance between the radicalism of Malcolm X and King’s gospel of love. Are we to walk down Baldwin’s path, following his example? Some days I feel incapacitated by my rage. On those days, I turn to Baldwin, who, in my mind, was stronger than anyone else, if only because he had to be.