“God forgives murder and he forgives adultery, but he is very angry and he actually curses all who do integrate.” Uttered by a representative of the well-meaning white women of the post-racial 1950’s America concerning the abomination of desegregation.
I am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck, narrated by Samuel Jackson, combines such salient real-life quotes and excerpts of film classics to resurrect James Baldwin’s incomplete novel “Remember this House”. The prominent Civil Rights author, before his death in 1987, had undertaken the task of chronicling the fight of three revered black revolutionaries: Medgar Evans, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. All toiled valiantly for the rights of blacks and minorities in post-slavery America, all tragically assassinated within years of each other.
Baldwin, and by extension director Raoul Peck, holds no punches when dissecting the landscape of the United States. There is poignant social commentary on the vapid nature of American television, the hypocrisy of white Christians harboring racist mentalities, and the price of American prosperity. The chilling juxtaposition of photos of lynchings and scenes of police brutality, footage of civil rights-era demonstrations and clips of modern-day Black Lives Matter protests.
Peck’s cinematic flair is unparalleled. From delicate injections of humor to the artful use of music, every aspect of cinematography fits the overall message and feel of the film. The audiovisual experience of “I am not Your Negro” pays homage to Black Revolution and sets the tone for its continuation. Peck manages to prove, in the words of Baldwin himself, that “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”
Baldwin’s musings about the intricacies of race relations are profound and unbiased. He has the air of one who has seen so much, felt so much hurt for the situation of his people and his country, that he has no choice but to speak out against the injustice. We see him in the flesh, all sad eyes and gentlemanly swag, through a compilation of photographs, vintage footage on talk shows, and before large audiences, articulating the concepts that so desperately needed to be said in 1960s America, and which still have not been fully grasped today. He lived and traveled holding dear to his own ideologies and belief systems, making him a unique and invaluable voice in the struggle for freedom.
Baldwin notes that he did not hate white people, due to the kindness shown to him by a white girl in his early childhood. Although she was white she had a certain purity of heart that made her fond of him and the other black children she came across.
“I began to suspect that white people acted the way they did not because they were white, but for some other reason.”
He therefore did not ascribe the racist and evil actions of the white people to their whiteness, in the way that crimes and flaws have long been ascribed to blackness. Instead, he chalks it up to their humanness. From Baldwin’s perspective, it boiled down to an irrational fear and a lust for power. Having been convinced by the ruling elite that whites were superior, they used it as a leverage for their self-worth. The illusion of superiority and power was then so great, that an irrational fear of the black man ensued; a deep-seated hatred of his unbridled self-expression in spite of oppression, a fear of his imminent retaliation.
“The root of the Black man’s hatred is rage. And he does not so much hate the White Man as simply wants him out of his way. And more than that, out of his children’s way. The root of the White Man’s hatred is terror, which focuses on the dreaded figure, an entity, which lives only in his mind.”
It is this invented entity of the “Negro” that the title refers to. Baldwin rejects this assigned identity, asserting that he is not a “nigger”, he is a man. Reclaiming his manhood and his humanity, he poses the question of why the white man needs to create a false identity for the black man on which to project his fears and insecurities. In this regard, a clip from an old film speaks volumes, featuring a white man viciously taunting a black man with the word “Nigger”, then bursting into tears complaining about how nobody ever loved him.
“This problem they invented (The Negro Problem) in order to safeguard their purity has made of them criminals and monsters and it is destroying them.”
This can be seen even in this present day, as racism and xenophobia are used to prod at the age old lie constructed in the mind of the majority white population, that the man of color is the root of all evil. These “criminals and monsters”, empowered by their leader, are surfacing in droves, insulting, attacking and murdering innocent people. In the documentary, there is a rather comical scene where a black man and a white man get up to fight, and the viewer realizes that there is a long chain connecting them both. A visual representation of the absurdity of racial hatred. At the end of the day, both are in the same boat, but the white man fails to realize that the destruction of the black man will be the destruction of America.
In closing, the words of James Baldwin ring true:
“If we were white, if we were Irish, if we were Jewish, if we were Poles, if we had in fact, in your mind a frame of reference, our heroes would be your heroes too, Nat Turner would be a hero for you instead of a threat, Malcolm X would still be alive…when the Israelis pick up guns, or the Poles, or the Irish, or any white man in the world says “Give me liberty or give me death”, the entire white world applauds. When a black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal, and treated like one, and everything possible is done to this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.”
Editor-in-Chief at The Black Revolution Blog