Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it has been faced. History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise we literally are criminals. James Baldwin
Yesterday I finally watched I am not your Negro (2016), directed by Raoul Peck, a devastatingly powerful documentary of the unfinished manuscript of James Baldwin’s Remember this House. This was to be a book about the lives and deaths of three of his friends — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr — all who were murdered within 5 years of each other. He told his literary agent he wanted them to “bang against and reveal one another as they did in life.” This is collaged with archival film footage from the 60s juxtaposed with present day video of police action and protest, Baldwin’s tv appearances, notes, and letters. Also included are passages from some of Baldwin’s essays and from his books, specifically The Devil Finds Work, about Hollywood and the racial politics in film. Some of the films he analyzes in that book are used as powerful images in this movie.
The voiceover of Baldwin’s words in this film are performed by Samuel A. Jackson. Though Jackson’s voice is more raspy and low-keyed than the footage of Baldwin speaking for himself, it works — his words hooked me; I was riveted, literally hanging on Baldwin’s every word. His sobering words, his unsparing words. The clarity and stark truth of his vision of America and race and the sting of his scorn. His words, powered and enriched by the visuals, even as some of them were typed on the screen, went directly to my heart.
What made this even more impactful for me was the realization that I have read James Baldwin before. I have read Fire Next Time, Giovanni’s Room, The Devil Finds Work, and many of his essays. There are underlinings and notes in the margins of those books — made by me. I watched the Dick Cavett show he was on (prominently featured in the film) at the time it was broadcast in 1969. But after watching this film, it was like I was hearing his words for the first time. Who was I then? Who did I think I was? I thought I got it. I thought I understood racism. Has it really taken 50 years for me to really get shaken to my core by Baldwin’s words? Shaken in the sense that I finally understand how I am a complicit part of the problem of systemic racism in this country. I thought I was outraged 50 years ago. I hadn’t realized how duplicitous I was/am.
I am facing that history now. Deeply. I carry that history. I live that history. I am that history. I reap the reward of that history while others suffer its consequences. Being in denial to the hugely devastating impact that history, and all the institutions created in its name, has on those who continue to bear and resist its repercussions, is what is criminal. Being accountable for this history and taking responsibility for the dismantling and rebuilding of these systems so that they inclusively reflect everyone’s full humanity is the daunting but necessary task that must be undertaken. Now.