James Baldwin is one of those writers whose work I keep returning to at different stages of my life. I read him first when I was a student, and then found a copy of Nobody Knows My Name while I was living for a year in Berlin, in a bookstore run by a gregarious American who let you buy books and then swap them for other ones once you’d finished reading. Every time I read a bit of Baldwin, his dissections of American narratives around race, identity and history still reverberate. Baldwin writes about violence, bigotry and the moral blindness of his country of birth with a mixture of poetry and rage that I haven’t encountered in many other places.
For Raoul Peck, the director whose documentary I Am Not Your Negro is based around the unfinished book Baldwin started writing in the late ‘70s, Baldwin’s writing had a similar hold on his mind from a young age. Peck, who spoke in a Q&A after a screening of the film, explained how Baldwin’s writing had ‘structured his mind’, giving him signposts to understand his reality as an exiled Haitian who has also lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the US and Germany.
Peck used the words of Baldwin to create a film about race in America, representation, and the refusal of the country to fully come to terms with its past. Baldwin had been driven to start writing the book following the assassinations of three of the civil rights movement’s most important figures: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The disturbing thing about the film is that words that were written almost 40 years ago are still relevant to what is happening in the United States (and elsewhere) today. The film contains shots of both the Oakland and Watts uprisings in 1968, and footage of the uprising in Ferguson in 2014. The two are barely distinguishable, and half a century on from the height of the civil rights movement, deep structural inequality, police brutality and mass incarceration of African Americans are all endemic.
I found the structure of the film frustrating in places. It seemed to meander around a lot of different themes before arriving at its key point: that America has still not confronted the truth of its history. Despite the fact that he was heavily criticised by more militant sections of the civil rights movement at the time, such as by Eldrige Cleaver in Soul on Ice, Baldwin was especially on point when he managed to turn the table on the whole ‘race problem’ in America, by asking white America why it had felt it necessary to invent ‘The Nigger’ in the first place.
In some ways I Am Not Your Negro it’s a pessimistic film. It shows that, despite the election of America’s first black president, real structural change has yet to appear, precisely because white America has largely refused to answer those kinds of questions. Part of the reason for this, according to Peck, is down to an ‘intellectual gentrification’, where consumerism has left us with 500 cable TV channels and an inability to actually confront what’s happening in the real world, so that when many Americans (or others) see images of their own cities burning, and militarised police firing tear gas at their own citizens, the response is “that can’t be happening here!”.
But as Baldwin himself put it, “I cannot be a pessimist. Because I am alive. To be a pessimist means you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.” Despite his fury at the atrocities that America had committed, he was a humanist, believing deeply in human beings’ innate ability to transcend horror. Ultimately, the message of the film, and of Baldwin’s writings, is that by staring unflinchingly at our own lives and the history that has produced us, we will be able to become something much more than that which we currently are.