I Am Not Your Negro: A Reflection on Baldwin’s Message for White America
Last week Seattle hosted the screening of James Baldwin’s film, I Am Not Your Negro. The film, directed by Raoul Peck, envisions a work by Baldwin that was never finished called Remember this House. The book was to be Baldwin’s personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his friends - Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Unfortunately, it never got past 30 pages of a manuscript along with notes and letters to his publisher explaining the project. Peck takes these pages, along with the narration by Samuel L. Jackson, and brilliantly puts together how he sees the project could have been finished, using media and pop culture as a tool to juxtapose the lives of white Americans alongside those of black Americans. As a white woman in racial justice and whiteness work, I saw it as a clear message from a black man, often asked to speak for the entirety of the black community, to white people to address our responsibility for cleaning up the racist mess we made and continue to make as we navigate through an emboldened white supremacist United States.
As the quotes sprinkled throughout this post share, while we believe progress has been made and we claim we are less racist than in the past, embracing fewer ideals held in white supremacy, Baldwin’s film should ignite in the white viewer a reflective and critical analysis to really look at racism through the eyes of how the oppressed views of the oppressor. Many times we see the oppressed and the oppressor through our own eyes, very rarely is a white person asked to see the country and race through someone else’s perspective. Seeing race in this light would make it unethical and immoral to continue to live a life of privilege without challenging it every single day. There are three points from the movie that I have really been thinking about in my journey to accept that I was molded, manipulated, and made to be white and carry with me all the privilege and pain that comes with it.
1. Rage vs. Terror
Baldwin uses the 1958 movie The Defiant Ones, starring Sidney Poitier as Noah Cullen and Tony Curtis as John “Joker” Johnson, as a metaphor explaining the difference between how whites and blacks feel about race in the United States. In the film, two escaped convicts start chained together and attempt to find freedom. In one scene they were chasing a train in which Cullen got on, but Johnson did not. Instead of staying on the train and finding freedom alone, Poitier’s character jumps off the train to stay with Curtis’ character. This left black audiences enraged that he would do such a thing for a white man. This scene left white audiences feeling that even though white supremacy and racism are dominant narratives in their lives, black people still love them - or tolerate them or feel the need to care for them - either way, both are thinking of the white person and no one is considering the needs of the black person. When explained this way, it is clear how white fragility and white privilege have always been a paralyzing reaction to race in the United States. However, analyzing why the scene played out this way and asking if it would have played out the same had Curtis’ character got on first gives white people an opportunity to reframe what it means to be white in the United States.
He also used this film to explain how the hatred the characters had for each other mirrored real life in that the black man’s hatred is rage at being oppressed, but the white man’s hatred is terror at losing the role of oppressor. As an observer of the world through a white woman’s eyes, I see this as a debilitating fear that leads white people to hold onto their privilege with a white-knuckled death grip. The fear that loosening this grip might mean a role reversal in the established oppressive hierarchy created by white supremacy and the need to always be superior, not only because of the desire to not be oppressed but the terror of what it would mean for the white position in society if equity and equality actually came about.
2. Oblivious Living
Baldwin shows how easy it is for white people to move through the world and not have to interact, physically, intellectually, or emotionally, with people of color by using the 1957 film The Pajama Game starring Doris Day. The scene, once a year day, shows a large number of white people have a party in the park. At the party they are playing games, singing, dancing, and having a great time under a big blue sky. What my white eyes saw in this scene was the ease of being oblivious to the world around you. There was not a single person of color at this party in the park, it was the quintessential white bubble of living.
When writing my dissertation I came across the scholar Iris Marion Young who wrote a book called Justice and the Politics of Difference. I was reminded of an idea from Young’s work when watching this scene. Oppression is often created by people who are going about their lives like everyone else in society and do not see themselves limiting the rights and opportunities of others with whom they share a liberal society. For example, this scene is seemingly harmless as it is just a bunch of people having a great day at the park. But upon a closer look you see that all the people are white, in 1957. Were black people even allowed in the park? If not, then the very presence of a white person in a segregated park is a racist act committed by a group of people just doing their life. Young said each oppressed group has a privileged group related to it. As these white people sing and dance their privilege all over the park, the people that are not present are going about their oppressed lives without acknowledgement by the very people oppressing them simply by living. By acknowledging one’s privilege, one must also acknowledge the role that privilege plays in oppression. A point Baldwin is trying to make in this film is for white people to not only acknowledge their privilege but also question why is it necessary, what damage has it caused to others, and is there another way.
3. The Social Construction of Race
Race is a social construct. It is not real. It was made up to establish a racial hierarchy in the United States. You can read more about it here and here and here. Let’s put it this way- when the aliens come to do research on our bodies are they going to organize us by where we land on a capitalistic hierarchical white supremacist system of organizing people? No. They are going to march us on a ship and our investigate our insides. Race is not a factor in alien research of human beings because race is a social construction. This doesn’t, however, mean that race hasn’t become a very real concept in our American lives.
At the end of the film Baldwin is in an interview with Kenneth Clark discussing black life in the United States. Towards the end of the clip (5:19) he asks Baldwin if he is optimistic or pessimistic of the future American life. As he answers this question he says something every white person in America needs to hear and then answer for themselves. He says every white person needs to find out, “why they needed a n****r in the first place.” He goes on to say he is a man, not a n****r and if a white person uses that slur to describe a black man it is because the white person needs it, not because the black man is one. This puts a new twist on the white version of race in the United States. Baldwin has flipped the narrative white people have been telling since race was invented. To be black in the United States has negative meaning and connotations only to the white people who made it mean something in the first place. In other words, we are only white because there are people of color. We only have privilege because we oppress people of color. We only have racial divides in this country because we made it that way. So...now that we, white people, know that, it is crystal clear that the race problem in the United States is ours to clean up.
We are our history. White people are here today on the backs of the work of slavery. White people are here today on the land stolen by the genocide of indigenous peoples. White people are here because we are products of a capitalistic hierarchical social caste system designed to put white people in higher paying managerial/owner positions and people of color as cheap labor. Fellow white people, it’s go time...we’ve got work to do. I have no intention of letting Baldwin and people of color down, do you?
Find showtimes here.