I love James Baldwin.
As a fellow writer and Harlem native, he is my literary muse. When I first discovered his work, I felt as if he snatched the words off the tip of my tongue and splattered them on the page. He revealed me to myself, reaffirming my humanity in a country where blacks were offered a subpar education, fed subpar food, and left to rot in subpar housing.
Baldwin was and, perhaps, still remains America’s black revolutionary voice.
Raul Peck’s “I am Not Your Negro” is a visual portrayal of Baldwin’s prophetic prose. The film documents his musings on race in America and, along the way, reveals some interesting truths about how fruitful political discourse is on the verge of extinction.
In the film, Peck weaves together archival footage and excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript to reflect on the lives and deaths of civil rights legends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Samuel L. Jackson narrates a majority of the script, however there are rare moments where Baldwin, himself, speaks during a lecture at some elite university or while visiting some late-night talk show. During one of these moments, Baldwin encounters a civil rights troll who attempts to underplay the significance of race in America. In response, he delivers a fiery speech that reveals the presence of racism in nearly all of America’s institutions.
“Now this is the evidence,” Baldwin finishes. “You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen!”
Baldwin’s words resonate like a Facebook post gone viral. Yet, unlike the trolls of modernity, this guy actually seemed to get it. There is no name calling in their exchange, no accusations of “reverse racism” or threats of being sent back to Africa. This troll simply nods in a manner that suggests he agrees to disagree.
Sadly, modern intellectual discourse lacks this same level of maturity. Instead, complex theories have been reduced to 140 characters and political debates have devolved into Twitter beef. Trolling is the world’s new favorite past time and it seems we’ve abandoned the free exchange of ideas for the free exchange of likes.
Perhaps most terrifying about the popularity of trolling is what this trend suggests about the future of America. I am deeply afraid that our inability to respectfully disagree will ultimately lead to an inability to coexist. I fear hat if we stop engaging with one another; if we stop opening our minds to different wells of knowledge, we will never be able to solve the problem of race in America because we’d never be able to get to the root of it.
According to Baldwin, racism stems predominately from this troll-like inability to face the facts. In order to solve the problem of race in America, whites, in particular, have to search for the root of it within themselves.
“What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it,” he contends. “If I’m not a nigger here and you invented him — you, the white people, invented him — then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.”
“I am Not Your Negro” is currently playing in select theaters.