I stumbled on this book while I was handing out flyers for an event in Shoreditch. I spent 15 minutes in Libreria, an independent bookshop in Shoreditch that really is a feast for the eyes. With mirrors on the ceiling and the wall as well as sitting areas built into the bookshelves, you get the illusion that the space goes on forever. I nearly walked into the mirror thinking the bookshop went on into infinity when I saw I Am Not Your Negro from the corner of my eye. I watched the documentary in a small cinema in Edinburgh a few months ago and I was in awe. I had read Baldwin but the documentary of the same name made his work come to life for me. Even though Baldwin was writing decades before now, his ideas and observations are as relevant as ever. Director Raoul Peck explains that the book and the film came as a result of his attempts to make a documentary about Baldwin’s life but when given access to Baldwin’s unpublished works by Gloria Karefa-Smart (Baldwin’s sister) as well as her support and guidance, I Am Not Your Negro was born.
After the deaths of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Baldwin was inspired to write Remember This House but never went beyond 30 pages of notes due to his death. The documentary and this book build from Baldwin’s notes. From the start of the book, Peck builds your trust by explaining the process of creating the book. Before I even started reading it, I felt that I could trust his choice of texts as well as his motives and this allowed me to immerse myself in the book without any fear or scepticism. I don’t feel that I, or anyone else for that matter, is worthy to review the James Baldwin because everyone should read Baldwin – his is 5 out of 5 stars in Goodreads speak. Instead, all I can do is give you my thoughts and highlight excerpts that made me think and I must admit, some were just so beautiful to read and I’m not sure I fully understand the complexity found within them.
I Am Not Your Negro is divided into 6 sections: ‘Paying My Dues’, ‘Heroes’, ‘Witness’, ‘Purity’, ‘Selling the Negro’ and ‘I Am Not a Nigger’. Each section reveals another aspect of race relations in America as well as the American reality. In the age of catchy hashtags and clapbacks, I found Baldwin’s voice refreshing because of his emphasis on the harrowing effects racism and white supremacy have not only on people of colour, but on the white population. For Baldwin, racism and white supremacist structures are a societal ill and he concludes the book by stating that America – white America – needs the nigger and what society should focus on is why. Unlocking why America needs a nigger is the start of unravelling white supremacy and racism.
Peck starts this book with Baldwin describing seeing the now famous picture of Dorothy Counts walking to school in Charlotte, North Carolina. He explains that seeing the picture made him ashamed. He felt that ‘some of us’ should have been with Counts and admits that in his years in Paris, he never once missed anything American. Instead, he missed his brothers and sisters which he describes as nourishing him and paying for him. From the start of the book, Peck makes it clear that Baldwin did not see himself as a bystander. Baldwin knew he had to be there, he was an intellectual but he was aware of the reality of white supremacy in the South.
In next section ‘Heroes’, Baldwin describes his relationship with heroes as depicted in film. He describes something I often experience myself when I watch television and instantly root for the white protagonist. Baldwin eloquently writes, ‘in the moment you are born, since you don’t know any better, every stick and stone and every face is white, and since you have not seen a mirror, you suppose that you are too. It comes as a great shock around the age of five, or six, or seven to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you’. In many parts of this book, Baldwin talks about how we represent the world versus how the world is. We can watch and enjoy films with all-white casts and forget and buy into the world we are sold while forgetting the racial dynamics we live through. I remember watching Aziz Asari’s Master of None and something stayed with me, a character explained that when there is more than one person of colour in a film or TV show, it becomes a black thing. However, we are trained to see whiteness as universal and when we see white on TV, somehow, we are still able to identify with these characters.
I found myself underlining sentences on every page because Baldwin’s observations were just so relevant. Later on, the in book, in the section ‘Witness’, Baldwin writes that ‘part of my responsibility – as a witness – was to move as largely and as freely as possible, to write the story, and to get it out’. This reverberated with me because a lot of the time I am a witness and a lot of us are. Baldwin also explores another aspect of the witness, explaining that white people have been able to live in a euphoric state because they refuse to bear witness to the reality of the world in which black people live. Baldwin then explains that this is perhaps because in order to protect their purity, white America have created the black criminal. According to Baldwin, black bodies were created in order to solidify and create the identity of the white body. This leads me to another reason I love Baldwin, his focus on the intangible. Baldwin does not merely look at racism as something that is lived through, he looks at racism and white supremacy in relation to identity and things that we may not have a physical presence but we can still feel. He writes about experience, perception and what we feel and that is what endears Baldwin to me the most.
Peck ends this collection with this Baldwin excerpt which I think perfectly sums up Baldwin as presented in his documentary:
‘I attest to this:
the world is not white;
it never was white,
cannot be white.
White is a metaphor for power,
and that is simply a way of describing
Chase Manhattan Bank.’
Needless to say, I Am Not Your Negro is well worth the read.