Even now I’m not sure where to begin. This is partly due to the enormity of the subject itself, and partly due to the incisiveness of I Am Not Your Negro as a documentary that is arguably as much of our time as it is for our time.
There is almost nothing I can say about the complications of being black in America that won’t fall comically into the realm of understatement. This is not, obviously, indicative of anything historically novel. Neither is the anxiety surrounding it individually limited, though in prolonged periods of isolation—dark nights of the soul, some call it—it is often easy for me to believe that this seemingly interminable season of unmitigated disdain toward black people in the public eye (coming all the way from the upper reaches of government, down to the talking heads on network news) is really all I should reasonably expect in my own life. Not just from the so-called elite in power, but from the elite-aspirant as well. Sanctuaries are scarce.
Case in point: at the time of my writing this, Congresswoman Maxine Waters and White House correspondent April D. Ryan have entered once more into “viral” notice after Bill O’Reilly and Sean Spicer, respectively, came under fire for their disrespectful remarks directed toward both women. But here’s the real kick: in all the internet buzz, the undisturbed recognition Waters and Ryan should be getting for their longstanding work as black professionals now shares the stage with the drivel of the white men who’ve most recently insulted them in public—men who are not their peers in age or relevant experience. Granted, these ladies remain unbothered. But it’s exhausting to see. I can’t deny the communal aspect of it all: in them, I see my mother, my aunts, my family friends. And I am reminded that the notion of an American meritocracy is a fiction. A beguiling one, but a fiction nonetheless.
James Baldwin knew this, of course. In 1979, he wrote a letter to his editor proposing his next book project, Remember This House, in which he planned to write extensively about his three friends, prominent leaders in the Civil Rights Movement: Martin Luther King, Jr.; Malcolm X; and Medgar Evers. Baldwin died before he could complete the book, but I Am Not Your Negro takes its cue from him, documenting the future (our present) that Baldwin had already been working to analyze.
With stunning directorial work by Raoul Peck, the documentary uses only Baldwin’s words for its narration, overlaying his musings over archival footage from the 60s and 70s, interspliced with current footage from around the country. Still-ongoing arguments about whether or not the Black Lives Matter movement of the 21st century is akin to the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th may take a backseat to the raw, pictorial evidence presented here from across the decades: armored police, arrests, dogs attacking protestors, unarmed women and men sprayed down with high-pressure hoses—all shown on film, all too familiar. “History is not the past,” Baldwin says. “It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals.”
It’s a catch-22: I Am Not Your Negro is as disheartening for its relevance as it is validating in its relevance. That is, it was painful for me to watch at times, but wholly validating to witness as a black viewer. (I watched the film alone.) Those anxieties, the steady, pressing sensation of being under a different kind of microscope—all of those worries had at least some basis of experiential grounding, one shared by many others.
Perhaps the way I’m parsing up audience is cumbersome, but that can’t be helped. We can’t avoid that Baldwin wrote to a particular sphere of white readership, which translates throughout the film, though his criticism of the constructs of whiteness never lose their bite: “The question is really about apathy and ignorance, which is a price we paid for segregation,” Baldwin asserts in an interview. “That’s what segregation means: you don’t know what’s happening on the other side of the wall, because you don’t want to know.” In his own incisive review titled “I Am Your Negro Sometimes,” the poet Terrance Hayes muses over a similar question, too: “ ‘Who [is] the your in the title?” he wonders. “What does your average White James Baldwin fan really know about Negroes?’”
It’s a good question—if not the question of the film—and the one few seem to want to answer, or even know how to answer. While talk of a post-racial America has gone quietly underground, anti-black racism’s latent, coarse biases continue to persist across racial lines, regardless of the intent from which they arise. Not surprisingly, this realization tends to startle well-meaning white audiences. But Baldwin writes, as if to spell it out: “…you never had to look at me. I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me.”
What to do, then? If James Baldwin was a prophet, and I would say that he was, it is less because of some mystical clairvoyance on his part, and more because of the immediacy of his attentiveness—to his own generation, and to those before him. He chose to be a witness, one who could forecast the future because he could see, and I mean really see the present—for all its immaturity, maladies, and wounding. I Am Not Your Negro gives us some insight into his mind in this regard, a glimpse of the scope of his vision for the entirety of a country that he fought with, and loved, so much. “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America,” he writes. “It is not a pretty story.”