I Am Not Your Negro is a documentary that uses words of James Baldwin (1924-1987) to narrate the events of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. It tells the story of activists Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. but in doing so tells a much bigger story.
The larger story Baldwin’s words tell is one of alienation in modern life and the failure of that elusive American Dream to come true for so many citizens. Of course, the movie is about race but it’s couched in a more general dissatisfaction with the way people in America are incentivized to live and think.
Cut in with the historic film reels from 50 years ago is footage of recent events. To see the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri protests contrasted with footage of the 1965 Watts Riots and the Rodney King beating in 1991 gives the history of America’s race relations the sense of a hopeless treadmill.
Throughout the film, James Baldwin speaks with such profound eloquence about the disappointments of modern life that whether or not you agree with him you are forced to wrestle with his provocative statements. He is a man driven to tell his story and describe the world as he sees it. His voice is compelling.
This documentary raises more questions than it answers, such as: Is there a hollowness at the core of modern American life that allows bigotry to fester? Collectively, would we rather deny this emptiness and carry on with vapid entertainments and theme park amusements? How can we address the disparity in outcome between black and white Americans that runs so far back in history? The answers this film provides is the cathartic therapy that can be found in probing these questions with Baldwin’s wise guidance.
This is the most accessible entry point I’ve encountered into Baldwin’s work. In the past, I’d attempted to read a book of essays and criticism several years ago and felt like I was missing the context for understanding what he was talking about. But here, his intellect and sympathy is on full display and it feels more relevant than ever. I think what he is searching for beyond a way to transcend the infernal tensions of race relations in America is to understand the universal pain of being a human in the modern world. What, after all, does it mean to be an American? We are all the benefactors of such amazing collective wealth. The question lingers as to how we can be responsible citizens while acknowledging our debts to those who came before? Moreover, to each other.
Here are his words from the film that most haunted me:
“I have always been struck in America by an emotional poverty so bottomless, and a terror of human life, of human touch so deep that virtually no American appears able to achieve any viable, organic connection between his public stance and his private life.
This failure of the private life has always had the most devastating effect on American public conduct and on black-white relations. If Americans were not so terrified of their private selves they never would have become so dependent on what they call the ‘Negro problem’.”
“Someone once said to me that the people in general cannot bear very much reality. He meant by this that they prefer fantasy to a truthful recreation of their experience. People have quite enough reality to bear by simply getting through their lives; raising their children, dealing with the eternal conundrums of birth, taxes, and death.
“What I’m trying to say to this country, to us, is that we must know this, we must realize this, that no other country in the world has been so fat, and so sleek, and so happy and so irresponsible, and so dead. No other country can afford to dream of a Plymouth and a wife, and a house with a fence, and the children growing up safely to go to college and to become executives, and then to marry and have the house, and Plymouth, and so forth.
A great many people do not live this way and they cannot imagine it, and do not know that when we talk about ‘democracy’ that this is what we mean.”
“This is the formula for a nation or a kingdom decline. For no kingdom can maintain itself by force alone. Force does not work the way its advocates think in fact it does. It does not, for example, reveal to the victim the strength of the adversary. On the contrary, it reveals the weakness-even the panic-of the adversary. And this revelation invests the victim with passion.
“The American way of life has failed to make people happier or make them better. We do not want to admit this, and we do not admit it. We persist in believing that the empty and criminal among our children are the result of some miscalculation in the formula that can be corrected. That the bottomless and aimless hostility that makes our cities among the most dangerous in the world is created and felt by a handful of aberrants, that the lack, yawning everywhere in this country, of passionate conviction of personal authority proves only our rather appealing tendency to be gregarious and democratic.”
Indeed, this film isn’t easy to watch but it is certainly a powerful statement.
James Baldwin’s 1965 debate with William Buckley, Jr. (spirited and rational discourse like you’ll never see on 21st century TV)