Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Witness

“I Am Not Your Negro,” film and book by Raoul Peck, texts by James Baldwin, 2107

James Baldwin spent many years in ‘the tree-shaded boulevards’ of Paris, escaping from the racism of U.S. society, but decided to come back and witness the fight against Jim Crow and for black rights in the 1960s.  This book and film are based on 30 pages of notes by Baldwin for an unpublished book centering on Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers – all martyrs in the struggle for black liberation and also friends or acquaintances of Baldwin’s.  Peck, initially a Haitian, brings a radical Caribbean sensibility to his film curation of Baldwin’s work.  He was helped by Baldwin’s daughter throughout the project, as she gave him the notes that became the heart of the film.  Peck is currently working on another film about the young Karl Marx, due to be released this year.

Baldwin in the urban land
This topic is a very familiar tale for most leftists.  Baldwin, being a writer, is not as well known as the 3 protagonists.  As such the book or film are good introductions to his larger works – ‘Go Tell it On the Mountain,’ ‘Notes of a Native Son,’ and ‘The Fire Next Time.’  Baldwin calls himself a witness to the ‘participants’ – as he never went to jail, was beaten, shot at or killed – and there is a bit of guilt about his role of writer and witness here.  Even so the FBI put him on their ‘security index.’ 

Peck points out that Baldwin “saw through the system” and illustrates this with his many insights.  While many Americans blithely accept the history or politics or ‘news’ they are fed, radicals like Baldwin unearthed the real story.  Baldwin, like Jeffrey St. Clair, pointed out that knowing reality was preferable to a rhetorical ‘hope.’ Baldwin never managed to hate white people, as a white woman was very kind to him when he was young.  So his politics were not simply black nationalist.  For instance his attitude to the NAACP was negative, as it “was fatally entangled with black class distinction or illusions of the same, which repelled a shoe-shine boy like me.”  (The NAACP has not changed much!)  He points out that King and Malcolm X became closer over time, and Martin “picked up Malcolm’s burden, articulated the vision that Malcolm had begun to see.”  Baldwin equated segregation with ‘know-nothingism’ but knew that liberals like Bobby Kennedy were not really allies either.  Baldwin self-evidently knew it was harder to be a black revolutionary than a white one.  He knew that black people were in the Americas for one reason only – “cheap labor.”  And so on. 

Many Baldwin quotes in the book are like a poetic narrative, while others are bits of straight transcripts of interviews.  Baldwin frequently cited films and stars like John Wayne or Sidney Poitier in his writing, somewhat like Zizek today.  In this celluloid reality he saw the cultural heart of ‘Americaness,’ as did black audiences.  Baldwin says:  “Their concept of entertainment is difficult to distinguish from the use of narcotics.’ Baldwin was also gay, but this issue did not come up very much in his narrative - and perhaps the monumental issues of the time forced it to the back seat.

I’ll leave you with a final quote:  “This is not the land of the free; it is only very sporadically and unwillingly the home of the brave.” 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
May 14, 2017 

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