James Baldwin died in December, 1984; since that time his pen has been silent, but in Raoul Paul’s 2016 Academy Award-nominated documentary film I Am Not Your Negro Baldwin speaks to us from the beyond. Here, not only does Baldwin explain the intricacies of the racial dynamics of his time, but Paul, by putting together a synthesis of Baldwin’s filmed speeches, television appearances, notes, and book excerpts, along with comments by Baldwin’s friends, and having been given complete access to the Baldwin estate by executor Gloria Baldwin Karefa-Smart, allows Baldwin to instruct us on current racial circumstances as well. There is so much Baldwinese that is ageless and applies to both then and now.
Raoul Paul wove all this together when Karefa-Smart, the elder of Baldwin’s two younger sisters, gave him a 30-page uncompleted manuscript by Baldwin. The manuscript’s working title was “Notes Toward Remember This House,” which was to be a book about Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Baldwin had met and worked with all three of those murdered African American leaders after he returned to America from France to “pay my dues.”
Baldwin, who had moved to France early in his writing career to experience life as a man unhindered by the pettiness of American racism, monitored the situation back home. Because he missed none of the American amenities he had no desire to return to the U.S. He missed only his family and the Harlem Sunday mornings, fried chicken and biscuits, the music and “that style possessed by no other people in the world.”
Yet after seeing in a Paris newspaper the anguish on the face of a young black schoolgirl being reviled and spat on by an angry white mob as she made it to her newly integrated Charlotte, North Carolina school, Baldwin became furious and filled with hatred and pity and shame. “Someone of us should have been with her,” he later wrote. It was then that he knew that he would leave France for home and the battle. He surmised that everyone else was paying their dues; it was time he came home and paid his.
So Baldwin returned to the United States of America and immediately involved himself in the struggle to liberate black souls.
James Baldwin was aware from childhood that no one resembling his father had ever appeared in American cinema, and that it was from American cinema that America, and therefore the people of America, got a sense of their country and their selves. Movies reflected the lives we all lived. As Baldwin did in his literature, I Am Not Your Negro lays out the case against racism and bigotry in a methodical manner that gives one the sense of the futility of the whole enterprise in the long run. Whites have gained much from their devised system of discrimination in the interim, but it has been pointed out in ways spread widely enough for all of to know that none of us is free until we are all totally free.
Baldwin describes his involvement as a “witness” in the Civil Rights struggle and uses an episode with Medgar Evers, then Chairmen of the Mississippi Chapter of the NAACP, to explain what he meant by the word “witness.” Evers was once asked to investigate the murder of a black man that had happened several months earlier. He showed the letter to Baldwin and asked him to accompany him on the investigative field trip. That’s when Baldwin discovered the line that separates a witness from a principal player on the stage of events. Baldwin knew that he was not responsible for any of decisions that governed the success or failure of the Movement; his responsibility, as a witness, was to get around as freely as possible, to write the story, and get it out there.
In doing what he saw as his dues-paying duty, Baldwin managed to grab the attention of the FBI, which monitored him closely enough to develop a file that concluded that Baldwin was a dangerous individual who could be expected to commit acts inimical to the national defense and public safety of the United states in times of emergency, so James Baldwin’s name was included in the security index.
James Baldwin fought alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and other black leaders to end segregation in public places, and lived to see that come about. I Am Not Your Negro affords us an opportunity to weigh Baldwin’s judgement on America’s race problem against current situations. Not what Baldwin would say about Ferguson or Baltimore; rather, what has he said about those events even before they happened? Baldwin’s declaration that their not knowing what’s happening to the Negro is not only the result of their apathy, but is also because they simply don’t want to know and that this makes them moral monsters.
You’ll find other incidents in the documentary where Baldwin’s words prove appropriate to today’s facts, and students of the Black Lives Matter movement will have a field day deciphering and pairing Baldwin’s words to today’s on-the-ground racial facts. Through I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin lives.