I Am Not Your Negro

Raoul Peck.Photography & script: James Baldwin.

Switzerland | France | Belgium | USA 2017, 1h 33min.

We forget so much in our time. Despite the fact that we every possible information available, constantly, everywhere, we still tend to forget the most important issues. Or, that might be why we are so forgetful, due to the fact that we have an extra brain in our computer or our phones and believe that all we need to be reminded of can be stored therein?

I am not sure, but I am afraid we are often unaware that a large share of the most important knowledge a human can have in life could not be described as ‘information’. Much of what gives life meaning  and direction, is something we must inhabit, be or at least stretch towards. Much of what is important in life has to do with how we deal with what we know, how we relate to others. Much has to do with emotions, feelings that bind us together and enable us to see others, despite our differences, as visible and vulnerable human beings whom we can recognise: through empathy, solidarity, friendship, love.

Uncompromising and truthful. In order to remember, we need role models. Role models who exemplify the way we ought to, or rather, should think and feel. I have a strange urge to say this, and to speak about role models as I watch the film I am not your negro. Because, as I witness James Baldwin – and listen to his words, watch his body move, engaged, passionate, adamant – his whole persona inhabits a natural completeness, his way of life, which is precisely examplary. Why? Because his relationship with truth is uncommunicated, direct, honest and without compromise. Because he has witnessed something which he is unable to pretend he has not seen. Because he understands the consequences of what he knows, regardless. He knew black history – he was a friend of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, all shot because they fought for black rights. Baldwin had an enormous ability to consider the truth depending on those with power, and those who have not, and his power of conviction stems from his own experience.  From what he witnessed. Of his thinking, nothing has been thought of.

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

Rooted in experience. An amusing scene in I am not your negro, when Baldwin joins the 1968 Dick Cavett Show, talking about black futures and the future of the US society. It is the responsibility of the American people to do something about the segregation of society, claims Baldwin. The reason it exists is because normal people look away, they do not want to know what is going on outside of their immediate horizon. Most only want to feel safe and have enough on their plate just feeding themselves and their family. They do not want any trouble. Baldwin maintains that civil society is to blame. When most people are thoughtless – as Hannah Arendt deemed Adolf Eichmann – injustice will persist.

Philosophy and reality. Halfway through the programme, which is taking its cue from Baldwin, a third guest arrives; Yale professor of philosophy, Paul Weiss. In the wake of Baldwin, who speaks candidly and uninhibitedly about US segregation, Weiss claims that Baldwin is too categorical. The divide between black and white is not as big as you claim, he states. Identity is hybrid, community is more fluid, says Weiss, sounding like a postmodern theorist. ‘I have much more in common with a black professor of philosophy than a white person who has never picked up a book – and you have more in common with a literary white than blacks who never read books’, he says. ‘It is all about becoming human.’

Truthful frames. To Baldwin, it is not that simple. He has never witnessed the idealism Weiss refers to. ‘To become human,’ which Weiss refers to, ‘can get a black man killed’, states Baldwin, who is by now all fired up. There is an intense and burning power in this way of cutting through arguments, because Baldwin establishes a strong connection to the lived reality with which the philosophy professor has no relationship. To think this way, anchored in the lived reality of a community, provides a good guideline and correction for airy thoughts. Many people think away from other people’s suffering. No, we are not to stop advanced and embellished academical thoughts, hints Baldwin, but the actual divides in the social reality should frame the conversation for what a human is and how we should live together.

Black lives matter. Baldwin’s fiery speech resonates strongly with the current Black Lives Matter-movement and Trump’s weak, or rather indifferent, attitude. Talk about making the police stronger, as Trump wants to do, without doing anything about their abuse of blacks over the last few years (and much earlier), is good reason to emphasise Baldwin’s reply to Weiss’ idealistic mindset.

Baldwin has a twin soul in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me, who – directed at his own son – states that the most fundamental part of black existence is that they have vulnerable bodies that can be destroyed by the police. Like Baldwin, Coates attaches responsibility to the community: the divide exists because the majority look away, they are thoughless. ‘The abuse this practice has led to – the widespread prison system, random imprisonment of black people, torture of suspects – are all products of a democratic will.’

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Greater community. Baldwin is a role model because he links experienced reality to ideas. But, he is also a role model because he does not consider himself an individual separated from others, but rather a human sharing his fate and life with a group. What is touching and almost shocking about Baldwin’s group affiliation, is the way he resumes a far more extensive responsibility than what is normally associated with blacks in the USA. He uses blacks and their history as platform, this is his home, but what he relates to is the American nation and all who live there. These are whom he connects with, as he writes and speaks, and tries to take responsibility for. These are whom he wants to resume responsibility themselves.

Our change. Towards the end of the film, he formulates it as clearly as it can be: «Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Precisely, we have to start with those who are suppressed, where we are located. Not only the blacks of the USA, but your own local environment. Your work place, school, local community. Suppression and segregation is all around us, and Baldwin’s ideas apply to all societies and all times. We have to start seeing him, seeing her.

What do you see? Who do you see? What can you change? Where are you able to start this work? With Baldwin as a role model, we get a clearer picture of where the road will lead.