Christian Gonzalez/ Staff Writer
James Baldwin’s forlorn disposition said it all: he was one of those unlucky people who had been compelled, by forces much outside themselves, to reconcile their love for mankind with their knowledge of history.
It is to Raoul Peck’s credit that he managed to capture this part of Baldwin’s essence so well in his documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro.”
In the film, Samuel L. Jackson’s deep voice narrates Baldwin’s critiques about racial subjugation in America. While this happens, viewers are shown images from America’s historic crimes against blacks: grotesquely racist television commercials and movies, segregated buses and restaurants and photos of flagellated slaves.
And then, there is footage from modern-day protests in Ferguson and elsewhere.
Like the thoughts of many great writers before him, Baldwin’s intellectual contributions continue to shine light on the world’s present troubles. However, I must quarrel with Peck’s interpretation of Baldwin’s ongoing relevance.
Ventriloquizing the words of dead writers is always a troublesome endeavor: no one knows exactly what Baldwin would have said about the events in Missouri or the Black Lives Matter movement.
Baldwin’s thought was nuanced. He was against the monstrous racism of his time, of course, but his position was different from that of the two great civil rights leaders: Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. King was too soft on whites; X was too harsh on them.
Baldwin’s views lay somewhere in the middle.
Alfredo Garcia, an adjunct lecturer at the Honors College and specialist in sociology, describes Baldwin as always being an “in-between person.”
“Whenever you live in that interstitial place, you never feel comfortable taking a side,” Garcia said.
Garcia also pointed out that Baldwin’s style would not have fit in well in today’s mass media.
“Today, we’re always asking people to take sides. Is it Blue Lives Matter? All Lives Matter? Or Black Lives Matter? Baldwin would have hated that.”
In addition to this issue of style, I believe some problems arise when one tries to superimpose Baldwin’s critiques of 1960s America with the present state of affairs.
The first problem with drawing a direct parallel between the 60s and today is that Baldwin never really offered much in the way of a solution to what was then called the “Negro question.” Baldwin mainly critiqued, and it is nearly impossible to find fault with his analyses. But he did not provide a program for “solving” racism.
In contrast, today’s activists for racial justice advance a set of specific demands, starting with criminal justice reform and a revocation of the War on Drugs. My aim here is not to adjudicate between the approaches but to highlight an important distinction.
Also of note is that Baldwin showed a certain kind of consideration, if not compassion, for whites. In his famous debate with William F. Buckley in 1965, Baldwin said that segregation was not merely a crime against American blacks, though an appalling crime it was.
“It is a terrible thing,” said Baldwin, “for an entire people to surrender to the notion that one-ninth of its population is beneath them.”
Segregation, like all systems of oppression, necessitated the moral destruction of those willing to be accomplices to the abuse.
Baldwin would almost surely have sympathized, if not endorsed, the criticisms against mass incarceration and against the ways discrimination persists in American society. But to ignore his idiosyncrasies and complexities is unfair to his writing.
“I Am Not Your Negro,” despite all this, is nonetheless an outstanding and a deeply profound movie.
As I watched it, people around me emoted their feelings — when Peck showed racism, the disgust in the theater was palpable; when progress was displayed — as with the election of a black president — people smiled and clapped. This general disposition shows the progress that has been made.
Yet the fact that the film’s message remains relevant and thought provoking demonstrates we still have tribulations to overcome.
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Photo taken from Flickr.