James Baldwin as General: I Am Not Your Negro

(Vanity Fair)

A lot of words can be ascribed to James Baldwin, but the one that sticks the landing is “prophet.”

James Baldwin told us Trump was coming. He did not do so directly, of course. By the time Baldwin died in 1987 Trump was two years into yet another lawsuit, this time for forcing tenants out of properties he owned (based on greed, not race. The racial one was earlier), and it would be another year before Trump would settle out of court on a separate antitrust lawsuit. Coincidentally, 1987 was also the year that the first book attributed to Trump was published, The Art of the Deal, which makes one wonder what Baldwin knew then that we in 2016 did not.

By contrast, Baldwin did forecast in great detail, not so much the ascendancy of a Trump-like figure as the festering cultural climate that would inevitably invite all manner of political despair the likes of which Trump embodies so perfectly. Baldwin warned white America, for all its patriotic trumpet blare and misspent exceptionalism, what it was capable of; how it had not matured through time evenly or in the spirit of justice. The problem, of course, is that it is inherently American to take warnings as threats, not constructive criticism, so white America largely dismissed Baldwin as an uppity-negro and kept it moving.

I don’t know that there is a more appropriate symbol for the #BlackLivesMatter era than the image of an America constantly trying (poorly) to convince the people it has oppressed how fortunate they are while putting a hand over Baldwin’s mouth as it speaks. So it is fortunate that the narrative documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, exists.

The film is all of the laudatory things you have heard. Any criticisms of it are likely borne less of a critical cinematic eye than a desire for a longer film. We do not want to leave the world that has been made of Baldwin’s thoughts. When the credits roll (to a Kendrick Lamar song, no less) one wants to stand up and ask the projectionist to check the reel for more frames. But what about the fallout of segregation?, we want to ask our new and living Baldwin. We need so many answers! But the film ends, and in a way, Baldwin is resurrected only to disappear once more, leaving the work of discovering his genius on us. And we all know what level of effort that tends to yield.

The ubiquitous Samuel L. Jackson narrates almost all of the film, reading from a script developed from Baldwin’s notes and unfinished manuscript for a book entitled Remember This House, which was to be a survey of his relationship with three of the civil rights era’s most notable players: Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. It is not a documentary in the traditional sense, and thank god for that. It is more of an abridged audiobook for your eyes, and your appreciation of the film will be enhanced by knowing a few things about Baldwin going in, but not so much that it becomes more homework than invitation. Like Baldwin, the film is smart, direct, and unassuming. It doesn’t cater to what you don’t know. It makes certain assumptions, seeking to fill some knowledge gaps, opting out of the task of laying out his life story. It extends the Baldwin canon, not encapsulates it. It attempts to engage you with the product in hand, and the rest is up to you. Which is not to say it is a level 200 Baldwin course. If you’ve read even a handful of Baldwin essays (or say, Go Tell It on the Mountain) you will find few surprises here. As a sponge of Baldwin’s non-fiction oeuvre, there was little here that I did not know, at least philosophically. Still, it warms my soul to know such a film exists. It is necessary work about necessary ideas, and it should be mandatory viewing everywhere, followed by a chaser reading of The Price of the Ticket (or the 1989 documentary of the same name, which is the Baldwin primer some people were mistakenly looking for out of this film).

The film attempts to bridge the gap between two audiences: the white audience Baldwin has always had, and the non-white audience Baldwin has always deserved, but found little purchase with. Liberal white people love Baldwin. It was true back then and it remains true now. I do not know why. He does little to distinguish them from their clearly racist cousins beyond the obligatory. Today such positions are often interpreted as reverse racism, which is, of course, ludicrous. It is a position steeped in pragmatism, a position one takes as a survivalist. One cannot afford to look for the venom-less snake or the full-bellied bear or the good cop. It is a position that knows history, that can recognize one’s surroundings and summarily decide “I’d rather live today” as frequently as can be managed.

I must be crystal clear here that I mean what I say when I say that they love him specifically. I do not want what I’m saying to be misinterpreted as a mere love of his ideas. Baldwin was exceptional, and his writing remains some of the best ever produced by an American. I believe it is impossible to love someone as much as they love him and truly understand what he is saying about them, so the relationship is very confusing to me. But then, it is easy to love Baldwin now. James Baldwin is dead, has been for close to 30 years now. History can’t hurt you, and YouTube as séance has rendered him (albeit incompletely) in the modern era in small quotable bites, often making him the black friend you can ask about racism and not be told “That’s not my job” or “Don’t be patronizing” or “Racism is so exhausting.” And because you have to seek Baldwin out (because he is not generally taught in schools before college, nor does he have a bestselling book at the moment, nor was he a singer) he is something like the blues to black folks: unapologetically black in practice, yet engaged almost to the point of exclusivity by white audiences, slipping out of the minds of black people more and more with each passing generation. Until now, anyway. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s best-selling book Between the World and Me employs the epistolary device of Baldwin’s essay, My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation, and every book reviewer since it hit the streets has fallen over themselves to let everyone know they knew that. The good news, of course, is that there is no downside to exposing Baldwin to more people and so, pettiness aside, we must allow them to love Baldwin until their hearts burst.

Much can be read into a particularly interesting exchange between Baldwin and Dr. Kenneth Clark, during which Baldwin was asked if he was optimistic or pessimistic about America’s chances of reconciling its racist legacy. Baldwin responds with the now famous quote (which appears in part in the film):

I’m both glad and sorry you asked me that question, but I’ll do my best to answer it. I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that 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.

I have often taken that statement, not as a measure of hope, but in a more visceral way, in a way that Baldwin alludes to in his work with some frequency: that while he is capable of snap-violence, it is a miracle that he has not only not committed such acts upon random white people, but that he has remained alive long enough to voice such predilections. It is a difficult thing to want – or perhaps need – to lash out emotionally but find yourself incapable of doing so. Black rage is both a curse and a blessing in that way, in one glance our most damaging first impression, in another our most potent form of release. Black rage denied is how the slave holler that could not find a place in mandatory Sunday morning services became the blues. Black rage expressed nine times out of ten ends in a 911 phone call.

But let’s be honest: all of that is a projection, me imposing my emotional experience onto his sentiment. In truth, I have it all wrong, and a fuller reading of the quote makes that clear. Baldwin was only optimistic by definition here, not about his own existence, but everything around it. In short, that he had not yet been killed by America meant he had something to be optimistic about. After all, he did not largely seek to employ white Americans as burros of civil rights, so much as charged them over and over to fix themselves and atone for the sins of their racism. Apparently this is hard work, to weigh whether or not to investigate even the option of not oppressing others. White people scarcely know where to begin, even after they have been offered decades of black scholarship, studies, reflections and art as an answer key. It is a charge so heavy that the mere fact that any black people are left alive to point it out is a miracle and worthy of optimism.

Or, or, or. The beauty of Baldwin is that nearly all applications can be true at the same time, so long as they bow down to the reality of his proclamations. You’ll find no clearer example of the essay as art form than Baldwin. Regardless of what you think of his beliefs, the man was incapable of writing a bad sentence, and few people dove deeper or more bravely into the sinkhole of American definition than he did.

Baldwin is so thoroughly coupled with the civil rights era that it’s easy to forget – or never learn – that he was one of the ones who made it out alive, that he was around long enough to be a cultural contemporary of 1980s pop music and the birth of rap and Reaganomics. He taught college in Amherst in the 80s, and one of his most potent essays, “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood”, written in 1985, pulls in references to not only his childhood in Harlem but the ascension of Michael Jackson. Considering how Jackson’s life turned out in the years since Baldwin wrote about him, the term “prophet” becomes less and less an analogy for Baldwin and more of a bona fide honorific.

The crew in my barbershop this week suggests that I Am Not Your Negro won’t do the kind of business it deserves. In that space, Bill Cosby’s recent dismissal of a defamation lawsuit means he’s innocent, which isn’t what that means at all. Despite Dr. Umar Johnson’s recent YouTube meltdown, he remains an oracle of some as-yet unnamed god of kinte cloth and Nag Champa. All black barbershop space is sacred. Not innocent, but important. So goes the black barbershop, so goes the nation. If you want to take the temperature of our people, get a fade and shave. Catch the conversation after your turn in the chair. The ticker tape this week makes it clear that we’ve got a long way to go, and they won’t be selling the bootleg anytime soon.

Baldwin could not appear more prescient than he does now. Sympathy isn’t something America is inclined to afford black people. It is generally the province of well-meaning white people, who have reserved such largesse for more zoo animals gone rogue than black people in recent memory. The country seems to be turning away from every reasonable advancement it has made in twenty years almost overnight, and you can practically hear Nero’s fiddle every evening on CNN. In a time when the very notion of truth is under assault – facts are literally being called enemies of the state – Baldwin’s observations almost blind in their honesty. Baldwin is an Orwellian vaccine, or better, the general of an army comprised of common sense conscripts at war with America’s very definition of identity. We would all do well to dig back into what he had to say about the America he knew we would still be fighting.

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