Reflections on I am Not Your Negro and what Baldwin asks of white people
We’re nearing the end of Black History Month. White Americans put extra (by which I mean any at all) effort into acknowledging the contributions of Black Americans to this country. Images of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were shared, his most famous words in block letters across a black and white photograph of him looking serious. Those a little more advanced in their celebrating posted an article about Claudette Colvin.
As this Black History Month nears its end I suggest a different topic of study for white Americans: whiteness, white history, and white mythology. Specifically, seeing and understanding ourselves as white individuals who make up a collective white history from the perspective of Black Americans. James Baldwin was prophetic, genius in his understanding of what whiteness is and how it operates. In the acclaimed documentary I am Not Your Negro, Baldwin posthumously poses a question white America must answer (emphasis mine):
What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a n****r in the first place. Because I’m not a n****r. I’m a man, but if you think I’m a n****r, it means you need it. . . . If I’m not a n****r here and you invented him — you, the white people, invented him — then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it’s able to ask that question.
Raoul Peck takes James Baldwin’s letters, recordings, and a sketched out book proposal and creates something searing, urgent and deeply contemporary in I am Not Your Negro. Baldwin’s 1976 essay The Devil Finds Work provides much of the analysis of the construction and mythology of whiteness. Baldwin’s never to be finished book proposal about the lives and deaths of Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X is woven throughout the documentary. His relationships with these men, and the impact of their deaths, provide structure to the film.
Three moments in the film keep replaying in my mind.
First: the scene changed to blue skies and palm trees. Baldwin’s words describe the perfection of the day. As a viewer, I was filled with dread despite the scenic imagery. Riding top down, feeling free, the news came over the radio that Medgar Evers was killed outside his home.
Second: Baldwin found out about Malcolm’s assassination over a celebratory, festive dinner with friends and family in Paris.
Third: Martin, another sunny, perfect day. This time by the pool.
This narrative framing unsettled me and haunted me after I left the theatre. There is no escaping the destruction of whiteness. No matter where you are, it can find you.
The day after I saw the documentary two articles floated across my timeline on Twitter – one disparaging Serena Williams for how she chose to present her body in Sports Illustrated, and one (of many) denouncing Beyonce for her pregnancy announcement and Grammy performance, or both.
(If only white writers took the energy they put into think pieces about Black women and turned it to answering Baldwin’s question.)
The day after that, reading the book Scratch, I come across an essay by Harmony Holiday. She described how poet Amiri Baraka’s grandfather was lynched, his business destroyed, simply for being talented and successful.
I hear Baldwin’s voice – we just want white people to get out of our way; more importantly, out of our children’s way.
We are always in the way.
In the days after viewing I am Not Your Negro my mind seems to process information like Raoul Peck arranged the documentary. In the film descriptions of the past are juxtaposed over the faces of Tamir Rice and Aiyana Stanley Jones today.
Everywhere I look, an injustice from the past and an injustice from the present overlap. Translucent image after image stack on top of one another until a vivid, brutal landscape emerges.
My white face reflects back in it, like a mirror.
White guilt is an useless emotion – it does nothing, changes nothing. It puts the burden on the oppressed to relieve the guilt, to say that’s okay when really nothing is okay. If guilt is the emotion rising to the top of your throat after you view the film, swallow it and see what else might come after.
I cannot say the majority of the information in the film was new to me. It will not be new to anyone who has read Baldwin and other Black writers extensively. Yet the film left me angry, shaking with rage kind of mad, that things have changed so little. That our country, that Black America, has been robbed of so many of the brightest minds, the biggest talents, and endless human beings who deserved life, freedom, agency.
Angry at myself because I cannot answer the question Baldwin posed so long ago. Not all together, at least.
I keep coming back to the idea of stories.
Stories are powerful. They shape the way we think and understand the world around us. Baldwin knew it, thus his critiques of westerns and classic film and what they reveal about the white psyche. Raoul Peck knew it, as demonstrated most plainly in the wrenching moment where the 1950’s oblivious, grinning white housewife fades into the face of a Black woman hanging from a tree.
Peck and Baldwin ask us to see the story of Whiteness not through our shared mythology but with clear eyes. To see the faces of the men smiling underneath the lynching tree as our grandfathers, fathers, brothers, and sons. To see the Donna Reed-esque white women terrorizing Black school children as our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, and daughters.
To look in their faces and see ourselves staring back.
Return to the question:
If I’m not a n****r here and you invented him — you, the white people, invented him — then you’ve got to find out why.
Go back centuries and the question can be answered with the benefit of the long arc of history illuminating certain truths – white people invented him (her) (them) for power, to justify theft and brutality and a complete “moral apathy” (Baldwin’s phrase). To justify stealing land from people, and then stealing people to work the land. To hide not just acts committed for power, but acts committed with sadistic pleasure.
But once the land was ours and slavery was over, why did we still need him (her) (them)?
Because without him(her)(them) as the villain, the story in which we are the heroes starts to crumble.
Why don’t we teach honest history in our schools? Why do we tell our children George Washington had wooden dentures instead of the truth, that he “bought” teeth from the bloody mouths of the people he enslaved and that is how he made his dentures? Why don’t we acknowledge the inception of the field of gynecology was experimentation on enslaved Black women, and that enslaved people were routinely used for medical experiments? Why don’t we know about that rape was used as systematically as lynching in the south? Why don’t we celebrate Nat Turner and Malcolm X as heroes for standing up to unjust systems? Why didn’t we put Ferguson protestors on a stamp when they stood up to the government that economically extorted them like something straight out of Nottingham?
Why don’t we tell honest stories in our books, movies, and television shows? Why do we still draw Jesus as a white man with blue eyes? Why do we still cling to myths of cowboys and Indians? Why do we still make TV shows that take place in NYC and LA and everyone is white? Why do we still cast the bad guy as a Black man, kill off the Black woman in the first forty minutes, and make the white woman the eternal love interest? Why do we add a fictional good white person to a historical movie like Hidden Figures?
Why do we lie constantly, in every imaginable context, for generations, about who we are and what we’ve done?
In one of her books Brene Brown writes: “Sometimes we have to rumble with a story to find the truth.”
We are long overdue for our rumble. For our reckoning.
Baldwin says the very future of our country depends on the ability of white folks to answer that question.
One of the more eerie parts in the documentary is when Baldwin ponders, almost precisely 40 years before Barack Obama’s election, the possibility of a Black president. We eventually got him, and the backlash has been nothing short of breathtaking. It’s also been nothing new – reconstruction gave way to Jim Crow, civil rights to the war on drugs and mass incarceration, President Obama to President Trump. Backlash is always brutal.
And now the whole world anxiously watches the dangerously incompetent, vindictive president whiteness chose to punish America for having its first black president.
Millions of white people wring their hands and wail: How did we get here?
We are here because of our “moral apathy”. We are here because we have refused to rumble with our story, to reckon with reality. We are here because we have failed to answer the questions posed to us by Baldwin and so many others for centuries.
Are we ready for the rumble? Ready to teach our children about the bad things their grandparents believed, and probably still believe? Ready to tell our Black co-workers what we get paid to do the same work? Ready to tear down the tower we have placed ourselves atop?
Baldwin, of course, in his prolific brilliance, has the perfect quote for this, too.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
There are a multitude of realities we must face, and Baldwin’s warning that the future of the country depends on it is more relevant than ever. Let’s begin with a radical commitment to truth, and destroying generations of false white mythology. If all this information is new to you, I am Not Your Negro might just mark your perfect starting point.