Friday night Carp and I attended a packed theater showing of I Am Not Your Negro. The play was written by James Baldwin, an American author born in 1924 and known for his writings about race, sexuality and class distinctions and tensions in Western society. He lived most of his life in France, but was well traveled and believed that writers were called to be a witness to the world; to continue to move but never to look away.
“Most of the white Americans I’ve ever encountered had a Negro friend or a Negro maid or somebody in high school. But they never or rarely, after school was over or whatever, came to my kitchen. We were segregated from the schoolhouse door. Most of the Americans that I’ve encountered surely have nothing whatever against negros, that’s really not the question… (it’s) apathy and ignorance. You don’t know what’s happening on the other side of the wall because you don’t want to know,” Baldwin stated in an interview in 1963.
The film incorporated the unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, that Baldwin was working on before his death in 1987. The film works past into present day, with clips from movies and interviews to weave into Baldwin’s typewritten words. “The story of the negro in America is the story of America, and that it is not a pretty story,” Baldwin writes. The film intertwines the stories of Baldwin’s three murdered friends: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers.
“If any white man in the world says ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ the entire white world applauds. When a black man says exactly the same thing, he is judged a criminal and treated like one and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him,” James Baldwin.
Carp and I commented, on leaving the movie, that Baldwin is one of the only writers we have heard who speaks like a writer. He was a brilliant communicator, and thinker. The movie ends with Baldwin doing an interview with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963.
“I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist.
What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it.
The question you have got to ask yourself — the white population of this country has got to ask itself — North and South, because it’s one country, and for a Negro, there’s no difference between the North and South. There’s just a difference in the way they castrate you. But the fact of the castration is the American fact. If I’m not a nigger here and you invented him, you, the white people, invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it’s able to ask that question.”
I came home last night, and anxiously grabbed Baldwin’s second novel, “Giovanni’s Room,” off the bookshelf to reread.