By Denise Oliver Velez / Daily Kos
There are voices we all need to hear. At a time when the United States is once again faced with our chilling legacy of racism and other ills including sexism, homophobia, and economic inequality, one of the most powerful voices from our recent past is speaking out again through the medium of documentary film.
It is the voice of James Baldwin. The film, I Am Not Your Negro, will be opening in movie theaters on Feb. 3.
James Baldwin was a groundbreaking writer: Black, gay and unapologetic. He became a household name by the 1960s and even graced the cover of Time Magazine in 1963. His books like The Fire Next Time solidified him as a thought leader and political figure. With archival footage and Samuel L. Jackson narrating Baldwin’s words, I Am Not Your Negro uses an incomplete manuscript from the Harlem native to tell a story that is frighteningly relevant today.
The manuscript focused on three of his friends who died tragically: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But this isn’t just a doc about race and class. Baldwin’s commentary is much more layered. His insight was and is heartbreaking, poignant and unforgettable. With pure cinematic magic, Peck delivered one of the best documentaries of the year.
At a time when protests for justice are once again erupting across this nation, Baldwin’s voice is prescient. We will be reminded that the movement lives on, though Baldwin, Evers, Malcolm, and King are no longer among the living.
Many of us who are older grew up with James Baldwin‘s work as an essayist, novelist, and playwright. We listened to his incisive analyses of race and racism in America.
I have never forgotten my family members’ pride as we sat in front of the television watching Baldwin debate and defeat William F. Buckley at Cambridge University’s Union Hall in 1965.
Here is a transcript of that debate.
As Barack Obama leaves office and is replaced by the bigot in chief, these words from the debate are telling:
I remember when the ex-Attorney General, Mr. Robert Kennedy, said it was conceivable that in 40 years in America we might have a Negro President. That sounded like a very emancipated statement to white people. They were not in Harlem when this statement was first heard. They did not hear the laughter and bitterness and scorn with which this statement was greeted. From the point of view of the man in the Harlem barber shop, Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday and now he is already on his way to the Presidency. We were here for 400 years and now he tells us that maybe in 40 years, if you are good, we may let you become President.
We got that black president—only to watch him be disrespected by Republicans from Day One.
As I often point our here, too many young people are not being taught history—and even recent history falls by the wayside. Under a Trump administration, the educational situation is bound to get worse. We have to take it upon ourselves to ensure that history is not only preserved, but passed on.
One of the gifts we have available to us today is YouTube, where there is a wealth of clips on Baldwin. They are useless, however, if no one is motivated to seek them out. Hopefully, the film will spur more young people to make those searches.
From the Transcript: James Baldwin on “The Negro and the American Promise”
Clark: What do you see? Are you essentially optimistic or pessimistic, and I really don’t want to put words in your mouth, because what I really want to find out is what you really believe.
Baldwin: I’m both glad and sorry you asked me that question, but I’ll do my best to answer it. I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive. But the future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country. It is entirely up to the American people and our representatives — it is entirely up to the American people whether or not they are going to face, and deal with, and embrace this stranger whom they maligned so long.
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.
In this 1968 episode of The Dick Cavett Show, Baldwin speaks about American institutions and systemic racism in churches, unions, real estate, and education.
James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket was originally broadcast Aug. 14, 1989 on PBS’ American Masters program series.
James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket uses striking archival footage to evoke the atmosphere of Baldwin’s formative years – the Harlem of the 30s, his father’s fundamentalist church and the émigré demimonde of postwar Paris. Newsreel clips from the ’60’s record Baldwin’s running commentary on the drama of the Civil Rights movement. The film also explores his quiet retreats in Paris, the South of France, Istanbul and Switzerland – places where Baldwin was able to write away from the racial tensions of America.
Writers Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, William Styron and biographer David Leeming place Baldwin’s work in the African-American literary tradition – from slave narratives and black preaching to their own contemporary work. The film skillfully links excerpts from Baldwin’s major books – Go Tell it on the Mountain, Notes of a Native Son, Another Country, The Fire Next Time, Blues for Mister Charlie, If Beale Street Could Talk – to different stages in Black-white dialogue and conflict.
Towards the end of his life, as America turned its back on the challenge of racial justice, Baldwin became frustrated but rarely bitter. He kept writing and reaching in the strengthened belief that : “All men are brothers – That’s the bottom line.”
A lesser-known work that’s now available is this short by black British independent filmmaker Horace Ové, who shot Baldwin’s Nigger in 1968 when Baldwin and Dick Gregory visited a West Indian student center in London.
Lastly, here’s a Baldwin quote which is very apropos for the America we face today:
“It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”
Our job is to fight the ignorance—and demand that justice.