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‘I am not your negro’
“I Am Not Your Negro,” directed by Raoul Peck, written by James Baldwin, novelist, essayist, playwright, poet and social critic, and narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson, opens with TV host Dick Cavett in 1968 asking Baldwin: “Why aren’t Negroes more optimistic [regarding their position in America’s free society] ... Is it at once getting much better and still hopeless?” That same year, Martin Luther King was assassinated.
Here we are a half-century later and still putting black America on the stand to answer this question: Are your rights to live in “the free world,” after 400 years and three major wars, any less than a white person’s? Baldwin states the problem exists in the institutions that practice racism, not in the personal one-to-one hatreds and psychoses of American people.
Perhaps discussions on what constitutes racism can be dismissed by calling it a pathological disorder, a mental disease spread through ignorance and behavioral programming. Or could it be the desperate need for one class to place their own personal chains of oppression on another class of people? Politically, racism can be defined by whoever is in power. Baldwin answers Cavett’s question by posing what he considers to be a far more important question: What is to become of our country if we continue to use this odd language? “I can’t be a pessimist, because I’m alive,” Baldwin said. “I’m forced to be an optimist.”
Based on an incomplete script Baldwin was writing, “Remember This House,” about the murders of three of his good friends, Medgar Evers (1963), Malcolm X (1965) and Martin Luther King (1968), Peck’s documentary delivers the critical thinking of Baldwin’s activism in chapters, beginning with “Pay Your Dues.” Baldwin had been in France, where the civil rights movement was focused on French/Algerian relations, and Baldwin felt out of the loop. He returned home to ‘pay his dues’ in his native Harlem, a place he had escaped because of the impact racism was having on him. He had needed distance to help ground his life as a writer and not as a victim of a pathologically racist society that would systemically not recognize him as a writer, but only as a Negro. Hence the title of this film, “I Am Not Your Negro.”
“Remember This House” describes a journey as something you take not knowing where it is going to take you, or what you will do with what you find, nor what that journey will do to you. As a “Negro,” you take the journey to find yourself and your position in a social system that does not recognize you. In 1965 a televised historic debate between Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. at Cambridge University took place over the question: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” The debate was won by Baldwin with an unprecedented standing ovation. Buckley lost because he could not conceive of what Baldwin was referring to when he talked about understanding “expense” from the point of view of a Negro in America. His closing argument, which riled Buckley, was this: If you are not allowed to participate in the making of the American Dream, but are forced to live under its rules, you can only expect to “wreck it,” referring to Baldwin’s book of essays, “The Fire Next Time”.
Baldwin’s narrative takes us through another chapter, “Heroes,” where watching cowboys killing the Indians on TV leads young black viewers to find heroism in self-annihilation once they discover they are the modern-day Indians/victims/savages. The chapter “Witness” is the black experience of moral apathy and an inhuman monstrous morality practiced by white society against blacks, from the most subtle treatment in the stores and restaurants to public lynchings. Baldwin says he actually feels bad for these white ignorant monsters, who feel nothing about taking a cattle prod to a black woman’s breast or killing innocent girls in a church.
The chapter titled “Purity” describes how the Negro is expected to be the noble one, always willing to lose to the white racist. The last chapter, “Selling the Negro,” is almost a direct response to Buckley’s argument that the Negro must earn his way in order to gain equal standing with the white man — in preparing to vote, in preparing for college, in preparing for true participation in the American Dream. Not unlike James Brown, Baldwin would probably agree: “I [the Negro, the black, the African-American] don’t need nobody to give me nothin’/Open up the door, I’ll get it myself.” When the institutions of America can truly open up the doors, the argument about “racial hatreds” being a pathological disease fed by ignorance and apathy will take a back seat to equal opportunity. As Baldwin says: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Open up the doors. Let the conversations about institutional racism begin.
For show times, visit plazamac.org, or call the box office at (631) 438-0083.
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