A STORY FOR OUR TIMES

India Today - - LEISURE -

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.

—Ash­win Parulkar

Bald­win’s writ­ing is rel­e­vant to an In­dia grap­pling with prej­u­dices of its own

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