It’s been nearly ten months since Raoul Peck’s extraordinary documentary I Am Not Your Negro first hit theaters in the U.S, and it’s now been available on DVD and streaming services for a couple of months. For those who are unfamiliar, the film’s script is cobbled together from a book that James Baldwin started in the 1970s entitled Remember this House. Although the book never got past its germinal stages, it was imagined as Baldwin’s response to the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King — all of whom were friends and inspirations to him.
I hope that everyone has seen it, but if not, please let me take this opportunity to encourage you to do so. Last semester, I co-taught a course that we called “James Baldwin’s America,” where we used Baldwin’s work as a lens for thinking about American history and culture. We took our students to see the documentary when it came out at the nearest theater that was showing it (a solid hour drive), and getting their eyes/ears/brains on it was 100% worth dealing with the bureaucratic tape required to take twenty college students on a brief road trip these days. I was reminded again of the film’s power this past week, when we screened it on campus for a group of 100 or so students and campus/community members.
There’s a lot to unpack in it, both visually and in terms of its essential arguments (of which there are several). Others more deft at cultural criticism can speak to the visuals, but in terms of the arguments, I’ll just say this. This is, of course, partly a film about what it means to be black in this country. I’m not sure that that’s what it’s really about, though. More importantly, it’s about whiteness: what it means to be white, and how much the construction of white identity required the creation of ‘the nigger.’ One section of the film finds Baldwin saying, in an interview whose date eludes me, “What white people have to do is try to find out in their hearts why it was necessary for them to have a nigger in the first place. Because I am not a nigger. I’m a man. If I’m not the nigger here, and if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.” What, in other words, does having “the nigger” (and other racially subject populations) do for white folks?
Relatedly, the film pivots on a juxtaposition of American racial terror and Americans’ desires to believe themselves innocent in said terror. (Folks who are into Coates’ stuff about “The Dream” in Between the World and Me will find this familiar.) Baldwin once wrote this, in a letter to his nephew that became the first section of his classic The Fire Next Time:
I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it and I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be–indeed, one must strive to become–tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of war; remember, I said most of mankind, but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.
Peck really gets this, and hammers away at it — subtly, but relentlessly. The cuts between still images of lynched black bodies on the one hand, and white pop culture imagery that suggests a land of supreme possibility an unfettered joy are jarring, to say the least. It isn’t a secret that Americans as a collective group are incredibly bad at self-reflection and self-criticism. Peck hold little back in stripping us bare. (Sidebar: I am curious if there is an American filmmaker who could have made this movie in something like the same way. (Peck is Haitian.))
In the discussion that I helped facilitate after last week’s screening, someone (as they inevitably do) asked what the solution was. I legitimately don’t know, but I can say (riffing off some things in the film) that white Americans have, by and large, wanted racial reconciliation for a very long time. But they have wanted that reconciliation to not also require reckoning honestly with the crimes in which one is implicated, and with the crimes of one’s country. Reconciliation feels good. Reckoning — well, reckoning feels like shit.