A STORY FOR OUR TIMES
Now on Netflix, Raoul Peck’s documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, offers Indian readers (and cinema fans) an excellent introduction to African-American novelist, essayist and playwright James Baldwin (19241987), who is sadly not well known here.
Baldwin’s relentless examination of racism in the United States made him first and foremost an American writer, of course. But his focus on alienation as the true cost of racism makes him universal—and particularly relevant to an India still wrestling with virulent prejudices of its own.
His essays in the ’50s and ’60s, particularly his 1963 book The Fire Next Time, grappled with the psychological toll of racism on black people in an America that projected—and legalised—white superiority to define national identity. “Negroes in this country,” Baldwin wrote in 1962, “are taught to despise themselves from the moment their eyes open on the world.”
Baldwin’s own writing forms Peck’s script. Samuel L. Jackson narrates passages from a manuscript Baldwin did not finish, on civil rights leaders Malcolm X (1925-1965), Martin Luther King (1929-1968) and Medgar Evers (1925-1963). The writer knew them personally and intended the book to capture the civil rights era through their contributions, from “1955, when we first heard of Martin, to 1968, when he was murdered”. “I wanted these three lives,” Baldwin wrote, “to bang against each other and reveal each other, as in truth they did.”
In retracing Baldwin’s journey in those crucial years, the film reveals how his identity—as an American, a citizen and a writer—was transformed by the lives of these men and by other victims of racism. Jackson narrates poignantly Baldwin’s memory of Evers telling him of the “tattered clothes of lynched bodies hung on a tree” he had to pass every day.
Through Baldwin’s words, the film shows how the news and photos of early attempts by civil rights groups to desegregate schools compelled him to return to America in 1957 after having lived in Paris for nearly a decade. He left New York City in 1948, he says, “and ended up on the streets of Paris with $40 in my pocket on a theory that nothing worse could happen to me there than could happen to me here.”
Nine years later, by then a well-respected novelist and essayist, he decided to return to America after seeing a photo of 15-year-old Dorothy Counts “being reviled and spat upon by the mob as she was making her way to school in Charlotte, North Carolina”, thinking that “someone of us should have been there with her”. Baldwin wrote his most enduring work those years back home. Perhaps seeing his country anew he knew how, and with whom, to fight for it. “In America, I was only free in battle, never free to rest,” he says in the film. “And he who finds no way to rest cannot long survive the battle.” Indeed, his three friends were murdered. Baldwin himself returned to Paris. And each of them is now immortal.
Baldwin’s writing is relevant to an India grappling with prejudices of its own