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James Baldwin and the Story of Race Relations in America with 'I Am Not Your Negro'
January 15, 2018  | By David Hinckley
 

James Baldwin (top) died before he could finish what he had to say to America. I Am Not Your Negro, starting with its title, picks up where he left off.

I Am Not Your Negro, an Oscar-nominated documentary put together over four years by Raoul Peck, debuts Monday at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS’s Independent Lens series.

The airdate is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, which is appropriate because I Am Not Your Negro grows out of Baldwin’s planned book on his friendships with King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers.

All three of these civil rights leaders were assassinated, and Baldwin planned to use their lives and deaths to paint a broad and neither optimistic nor flattering history of race relations in America.

Baldwin did not think those relations were good, nor did he see much hope they would improve. The problem, as he outlines it here in vintage clips, is that white America “has no idea what to do with black people.”

Some significant number of white folks are hostile, as Baldwin saw it, and too many of those who are not still don’t grasp the full meaning of equality.

“I am not an object of missionary charity,” he says in a speech here. “I built this country.”

Baldwin also left this country, angry enough to become an expatriate until he realized the one thing he missed was the spirit of the people on the streets of Harlem.

Those folks lived their lives in a different universe, he argued, from white folks who grew up on John Wayne movies and Aunt Jemima images and “could go through their whole lives with that euphoric illusion.”

Watching Wayne’s character pick off Indians in Westerns like Stagecoach was thrilling for black audiences, too, he explained, “until you realized the Indians are us.”

I Am Not Your Negro, which Baldwin had called Remember This House and on which he finished 30 pages before he died in 1987, was going to tackle the sometimes disparate philosophies of King and Malcolm X.

In much of popular lore, Malcolm X is branded as the militant, the fierce black separatist exhorting black people to take what was theirs by any means necessary, while King was the nonviolent conciliator, warning that final victory could only be achieved on the moral high ground.

Recent years have seen challenges to these oversimplified images, arguing that King was more militant and confrontational than just a reading of his “I Have a Dream” speech would suggest.

Baldwin was fascinated, Peck reports, by the way King and Malcolm X started far apart and drew closer together.

Baldwin did not, however, share King’s optimism. White entitlement, he said in many ways, ran too deep in the American soul.

When Robert Kennedy said race relations had improved so much that he could envision America electing a black president, Baldwin didn’t ridicule the sentiment, but put it in a more somber context.

Kennedy, he said, had only arrived at the table this morning and he had a good chance to be president already. Whereas black Americans “have been here for 400 years” and might have a chance if they wait another 40.

Baldwin doesn’t come off here as bitter and humorless. He talks to white people. He smiles. But his speeches, like his writing, seethe with frustration that American culture, developed over hundreds of years, never could simply accept color-blind inclusion for all its citizens.

I Am Not Your Negro doesn’t slam the door on the possibility of America ever getting it right. It does relay, powerfully, Baldwin’s admonition that anyone who thinks we’re close has not been following the race.

 
 
 
 
 
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