James Baldwin’s great project, as I might derive it from Raoul Peck’s documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” was to try to understand the African American experience. That involved some specific questions: why the catastrophe of slavery fell on black people in America; what it did to them psychologically; how the culture of white supremacy that it bred continues to oppress them; how they might cope constructively with this history and this present, and how things might change.
Baldwin’s project was deeply serious, his conclusions generated by personal anguish and anguished thought, and his words are majestic, still. “I Am Not Your Negro” (which has begun runs at Cinema-21, the Hollywood Theatre and Kiggins Theatre, after playing the Portland International Film Festival and the Portland Black Film Festival) is awash in those words, those descriptions, those insights, that anguish.
The film does other things, too. It tracks the intersection of Baldwin with other black leaders of the ‘60s—Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X. It shows how Baldwin’s reading of the media around him, specifically Hollywood movies, changed as he began to become aware of the deep racism that infected the system. And it shows how Baldwin came to place the blame for America’s “race problem” squarely where it belonged.
“But the future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country,” Baldwin says in the film. “It is entirely up to the American people and our representatives—it is entirely up to the American people whether or not they are going to face, and deal with, and embrace this stranger whom they maligned so long.” African Americans, of course, are the stranger, and “maligned” is a rather tepid word for the evil that white people visited on them.
He continues: “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. And you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.”
“You need it…” Peck’s film leaves the talking to Baldwin, his descriptions and explanations of our racial history, of the crimes white people committed, the lives they distorted, because they “needed it.” It’s a powerful film because Baldwin’s truth is so powerful.
Of course, no 90-minute film can encapsulate Baldwin’s life or work. The movie doesn’t discuss his fiction, for example, and so it misses out on his description of the gay experience in the ‘50s. “Baldwin was one of the first American writers to write openly about queer sexuality,” Dagmawi Woubshet wrote in his review of the film for The Atlantic. “As early as 1949, Baldwin had broached the subject in his essay “The Preservation of Innocence,” and had made it a central theme in his fiction, beginning with his second novel, the 1956 masterpiece ‘Giovanni’s Room’.”
What struck me, after I saw the film, was how ineffectual Baldwin’s remedy for the problem of white supremacy seemed. And that was because he didn’t seem to have an effective theory about the history of slavery and then how it continued in another form in America after the Emancipation Proclamation. At least not in the film. But as I rummaged around the reviews and remembrances of Baldwin after the movie was released (and was justly nominated for an Academy Award), a different Baldwin emerged—still passionate but more historical.
Here he is in an open letter to black activist Angela Davis, published by the New York Review of Books in 1971. (Davis was in jail at the time, charged with first degree murder and kidnapping, though she was later acquitted of the charges.)
“We know that we, the blacks, and not only we, the blacks, have been, and are, the victims of a system whose only fuel is greed, whose only god is profit,” Baldwin writes. “We know that the fruits of this system have been ignorance, despair, and death, and we know that the system is doomed because the world can no longer afford it—if, indeed, it ever could have. And we know that, for the perpetuation of this system, we have all been mercilessly brutalized, and have been told nothing but lies, lies about ourselves and our kinsmen and our past, and about love, life, and death, so that both soul and body have been bound in hell.”
The “system” is capitalism, or as the late African American historian Cedric Robinson called it, “racial capitalism.” I suspect that Baldwin had read Robinson, but W.E.B. Du Bois, the leading African American public intellectual of the first half of the 20th century, was certainly on his reading list. Both Robinson and Du Bois appear often in a new Boston Review of Books forum of essays called “Race Capitalism Justice.”
Here’s Du Bois, quoted in Walter Johnson’s essay in the forum: “Black labor became the foundation stone not only of the Southern social structure, but of Northern manufacture and commerce, of the English factory system, of European commerce, of buying and selling on a worldwide scale; new cities were built on the results of black labor, and a new labor problem, involving all white labor, arose in both Europe and America.” After the Emancipation Proclamation, what happened? Johnson quotes Du Bois again: “The abolition of American slavery started the transportation of capital from white to black countries where slavery prevailed…and precipitated the modern economic degradation of the white farmer, while it put into the hands of the owners of the machine such a monopoly of raw material that their dominion of white labor was more and more complete.”
So, Baldwin had ample justification for his direct assessment of blame for the condition of black people in America. White supremacy was part of the bargain the masters of capitalism made with poor whites: stick with us and we’ll guarantee that you will at least be positioned above black people. Capitalism doesn’t keep its promises, of course, and to be poor and white is no picnic, but by now the culture of white supremacy infects every corner of the larger American culture, and its proponents occupy important places in the Trump administration. It’s an insane proposition, but more important, it has made white people “moral monsters,” in Baldwin’s words, and made the lives of black people something resembling “hell,” in Du Bois’s.
Two last points. I don’t think Baldwin thought that some sort of mass repudiation of white supremacy was the answer to the effect of capitalism on black people. Capitalism, slavery and white supremacy are three connected dots. Despite the quote in the movie, I doubt that he really believed that white people would find it in their hearts to change en masse.
Second, “I Am Not Your Negro” captures Baldwin’s rhetoric at its most vivid and conceptual, but I think he had a down-to-earth assessment of what black lives were like under American capitalist conditions.
Here he is writing for the New Yorker in 1962, a longish memoir that tracked his falling away from Christianity and an encounter with the Nation of Islam. This description indicates the sort of experience that fueled his thinking, his work, his heart.
“School began to reveal itself, therefore, as a child’s game that one could not win, and boys dropped out of school and went to work. My father wanted me to do the same. I refused, even though I no longer had any illusions about what an education could do for me; I had already encountered too many college-graduate handymen. My friends were now “downtown,” busy, as they put it, “fighting the man.” They began to care less about the way they looked, the way they dressed, the things they did; presently, one found them in twos and threes and fours, in a hallway, sharing a jug of wine or a bottle of whiskey, talking, cursing, fighting, sometimes weeping: lost, and unable to say what it was that oppressed them, except that they knew it was “the man”—the white man. And there seemed to be no way whatever to remove this cloud that stood between them and the sun, between them and love and life and power, between them and whatever it was that they wanted. One did not have to be very bright to realize how little one could do to change one’s situation; one did not have to be abnormally sensitive to be worn down to a cutting edge by the incessant and gratuitous humiliation and danger one encountered every working day, all day long.”
This talk of capitalism, the system, the Man, isn’t intended to excuse individual white people, whether they belong to the group of moral monsters and/or the group of guilty bystanders. For me, “I Am Not Your Negro” is a way to begin to interrupt the distortion field that capitalism creates, at least the part that white supremacism plays in it all. Reading Baldwin helps to do that. So does reading W.E.B. Du Bois. When we look at the American experience through the eyes of black philosophers, writers, artists and filmmakers, we start to understand how distorted our own understanding of reality really is. They are the Red Pill in “The Matrix.” We need them to move forward, both as individuals and as a society.
It’s difficult business untangling more than six decades of white supremacist ideology from my own thought. When I try, it makes me doubt all my descriptions and arguments in a life absolutely chocked full of them. I find that it has distorted my emotional life, my behavior, just about every action I’ve ever made, one way or another.
As an individual, I’m well beyond the point where a concept such as atonement makes any sense—none is possible. I think as a culture we’re in the same place, though I agree with Ta-nehisi Coates’s reparations argument. All we can do is start the process of unhooking from the system that creates the distortion field in the first place. And encourage others who are doing the same. It doesn’t matter where you start. It just matters that you start. And maybe “I Am Not Your Negro” is there to help that first step along.