By John Duncan Talbird.
On the police brutality episode of ABC’s sitcom Black-ish, the teenaged son, Junior (Marcus Scribner), reads out loud from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015). His father, Dre (Anthony Anderson), derisively responds, “Malcolm X said the same thing fifty years ago.” Dre’s father (Laurence Fishburne) says, “And James Baldwin said it before either of them!” This generational one-upmanship (W.E.B. Du Bois! Frederick Douglass!) is funny because people of all races and ethnicities can relate to it. And it’s smart because it’s making connections between Coates and his literary and intellectual forebears. It also shows America – through America’s most traditionally unthreatening medium, the thirty-minute sitcom – that despite the US’s first black president and a growing black middle class, every black parent lives with a fear that few white parents know: When their children walk out the door, especially their boys, they don’t know if they’ll ever see them again. Coates has made no secret of James Baldwin’s profound influence on him. In fact, it’s been well-publicized that he set out to write his National Book Award-winning book after wondering aloud to his editor why no one wrote like Baldwin anymore. Between the World and Me has generated renewed interest in Baldwin’s writing. It seems that Raoul Peck’s new Academy-Award-nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, will only deepen that interest.
James Baldwin was an innovative and passionate writer who wrote in every genre. He wrote fiction, essays, poems, and plays. He even wrote a screenplay, an ultimately unproduced adaptation of Malcolm X’s Autobiography (1965). As the author of canonized fiction like “Sonny’s Blues” (1965) and Another Country (1962) and timely and timeless essay collections like Notes of a Native Son (1955), Baldwin has always been more famous as a prose stylist than a poet. However, no one who sees Peck’s documentary which is made up almost entirely of James Baldwin’s voice will doubt that nearly all the man’s words – written on the page, spoken in speeches, even extemporized in interviews – were sparkling lyrics of rage and sadness. The film is rich with archival video and film presenting Baldwin’s expressive and unprepossessing face, his slim body always dressed to the nines in Cool Jazz-era suit and tie. It’s a common veiled racism to marvel at a young black man’s articulateness. But it seems remiss not to point out that in the many interviews in I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin never says “Um,” never says, “Uh,” doesn’t read from notes, and still speaks long flowing sentences that sound like a later day African American Whitman.
Peck’s most brilliant choice in constructing this film has been to dispense with all talking heads (except for one or two from the archival footage). No experts tell us how important Baldwin was, no one marvels at the beautiful sentences, no one tells us about the timelessness of his writing: we just hear his voice. The closest thing we get to a traditional narrator is Samuel L. Jackson in voiceover reading from Baldwin’s essays and letters, speaking with Baldwin’s teeth and lips as if out of a time machine traveling from the sixties and seventies to our streets and back. It’s an inspired choice to have this icon of late-20th-century African American male cool speak the words of a mid-century avatar of cool. Jackson does a great job. His voice – one of the most familiar in the world – is almost unrecognizable, not an imitation of the intellectual and uncloseted homosexual Baldwin nor Jackson’s 90s-era tough guy (Pulp Fiction , Shaft ) but something in the middle, somewhere between the sensitive and rough, the intellectual and passionate. This is more than simply an aesthetically pleasing choice, but also a thematically smart one as Baldwin was a man of opposites: the light and the dark, the hard and the soft, the intellectual and the passionate. One of the central texts that Peck uses to ground his film is a letter that Baldwin wrote to his literary agent, Jay Acton, in 1980, in which he outlines the book that he is working on. This last proposed book, Remember This House, a book he never finished, was going to explore the lives of three seminal Civil Rights activists, friends of Baldwin, all murdered: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. This proposed book seems to be as much an expiation – a coming-to-terms with his own survivor’s guilt (“Not one lived to be forty,” he says; Baldwin was fifty-six at the time) – as it is a memorial.
Evers has been subsumed by history, much in the way that Baldwin had been until fairly recently. But Malcolm X and MLK have been obscured in a different way, deified and made into symbols, offered up as a false dichotomy: the peaceful (safe, reassuring) MLK and the violent (scary, threatening) Malcolm (Who has the most American streets named after them? Who has a day? The one white politicians are, naively, less threatened by). There is a segment from an early 60s talk show with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Baldwin in which Malcolm cringingly referred to King as a “modern day Uncle Tom.” This is clearly before Malcolm X’s break with the Nation of Islam and ultimately doesn’t represent the thinking of Malcolm X at the time of his assassination. I understand why Peck is juxtaposing this early Malcolm X’s angry fulminating and King’s quiet, thoughtful response. Because Baldwin was conflicted. He was clearly in the middle of these two supposed camps. Like King, he didn’t hate the “white man” (he says as much in the film). And yet, like Malcolm X, he too was pessimistic of the natural good in humans, skeptical of the inevitability of white acceptance of black equality.
Baldwin, perhaps more than any other commentator of his time, was hyper-aware of the differences between black thought and white thought broadly considered. He says at one point, speaking through the dead serious voice of Samuel L. Jackson, “White people are astounded by Birmingham” referring to the 1963 bombing of a church there where four black girls died. “Black people aren’t. White people are endlessly demanding to be reassured that Birmingham is really on Mars. They don’t want to believe, still less to act on the belief, that what is happening in Birmingham is happening all over the country.” Over images of white men beating and kicking black protesters at lunch counters, Jackson says, “They don’t want to realize that there is not one step, morally or actually, between Birmingham and Los Angeles.” Baldwin could be writing about today where modern technology in the form of phones and Youtube has made us confront the murder of unarmed black men and boys in Miami, New York, Ferguson, Louisiana, Tulsa, Charlotte, and on and on.
Peck takes us back and forth between then and now – between Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter marches, from grainy black-and-white to digital color. It can be disheartening to realize how little has changed, it can make Baldwin’s pessimism seem prescient. When we see black-and-white film depicting 1950s rednecks carrying anti-miscegenation signs decorated with Nazi swastikas, we cannot comfort ourselves with phrases like “That was then.” All we have to do is watch last year’s New York Times video short titled “Unfiltered Voices from Donald Trump’s Crowds” to hear white people shouting the most vilely racist and misogynistic vitriol. As it has become increasingly clear with the ascendancy of Donald Trump, reports of a post-racial America with the election of Barack Obama were premature. To watch these rallies is to see the contemporary, if less lethal, version of the mid-century lynching, images of which we see in Peck’s film, white people staring at the camera from beneath the feet of dangling black men, Samuel L. Jackson intoning, “White people: You never saw our faces. But we saw yours.” Baldwin knew that America wouldn’t destroy the African American. But he also knew that America’s racism would eventually destroy America. His are powerful and timely words, then as now. We should be grateful to Raoul Peck for reminding us of them.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.