To watch Raoul Peck’s magisterial I Am Not Your Negro in these early weeks of the Trump presidency is a bracing experience. I confess I had not thought a great deal about James Baldwin’s work in the half century since I first read him at the height of the civil rights movement. His words were powerful, to be sure, but they seemed then to emanate from a generation earlier than mine. In the mid-1960s his was still a powerful and eloquent voice, but also a forlorn one. The people to whose anguish and alienation and anger he had given distinguished literary form had found a more immediate and visceral mode of expression.
The “Negroes” of whom Baldwin spoke had become “blacks” and taken to the streets. Their collective clamor made it difficult to hear the deeper notes that Baldwin was attempting to strike. There would be progress, he granted. Rights would be extended. The “place” of the Negro in white society would change, because it was always changing, and yet it would forever remain a place—a limited and circumscribed space defined and assigned by the white man. Hospitality might be offered, but America would never be home.
Resentment at being treated as at best a permanent guest in a house one had built, a visitor welcomed on sufferance, fueled a smoldering rage. When Bobby Kennedy suggested that if blacks were patient, a black man might be elected president in forty years’ time, Baldwin fumed: We had been here for 400 years, he thought, whereas this Irishman was by contrast a newcomer. And yet this Paddy-come-lately was counseling patience—just 40 more years, as if blacks had not already been waiting for centuries.
And then, for a few seconds, Baldwin’s angry face disappears from the screen and is replaced by an image of Barack Obama receiving the accolade of the crowd at his inauguration—the fulfillment of Kennedy’s prophecy, at which Baldwin had scoffed. For an instant, we—the whites in the audience—are consoled by the thought that, contra the angry black voice, the arc of the universe has indeed bent toward justice—our justice, magnanimously granted by dint of our generosity and kindness. But then the smiling, reassuring face of Obama disappears from the screen, erased in an instant, just as the parenthesis of the Obama presidency has been erased—partially and one hopes not permanently—by the advent of the white supremacist regime of Donald J. Trump.
Peck’s film stands out for two reasons. First, the director has taken the risk of placing extraordinary confidence in the sheer magnitude of the writer’s oral presence. Paragraphs flow from Baldwin’s mouth without a stammer or hesitation or stumble. His thoughts are carefully shaped, or rather honed, like the edge of a sword. His rubbery face, saturated with sorrow, lends weight to his words, which resonate with dramatic timbre.
Second, the filmmaker has found a way to situate Baldwin not merely as a black writer but, separately and equally, as an American writer. He does this by interspersing Baldwin’s soliloquies with clips from American movies that illustrate precisely how the “place” granted the black in American society has been shaped and over the years altered by the culture industry, whose pervasive influence Baldwin perceptively analyzed and passionately denounced. All the clichés and equivocations of the invented and mendacious tinsel-town image of blackness are passed in review: the black and white prisoner bound together, who must hang together or hang separately; the black who provocatively comes to dinner and gently, without insistence, wins his place at the table; the black who threatens and the black who entertains; the black whose sheer talent or beauty or brilliance compels, as Baldwin did, a grudging acknowledgment of equality that all too quickly and easily shades into resentment, as if the claim of equality were an insult to white honor, an affront to be avenged.
Watching this skillful evocation of the black condition, I felt that both Peck and Baldwin would have wanted me to feel not only guilty in my white skin but also aware, as they are aware, that the black condition is also the human condition. Each of us is somebody’s Other. And each of us is immersed in our society’s representation of itself, now good, now evil, now the land of the free, now the scourge of Nazis, Communists, or “radical Islamic terrorists,” of whomever the incarnation of the Antichrist of the moment happens to be.
We are a nation born as much in fear as in hope. We—I use the Baldwin device of speaking in the first person plural to invoke the national experience, including even parts of it in which neither I nor my ancestors played any role—were settlers huddled in compact camps surrounded by hostile natives, or slaveholders in our big houses outnumbered by and at the mercy of our slaves. Fear enveloped us, but we subjugated it by subjugating the threatening other.
We inhabited a continental fortress from which we sallied forth only to slay the wicked, or so we told ourselves. We had only our domestic demons to bedevil our dreams until ballistic missiles and hijacked airliners invaded our subconscious and made us afraid of the world.
And now we are the recipients of daily incitements to fearfulness from the POTUS Twitter account: “Our country in such peril. … People pouring in. Bad.” We have imposed upon ourselves a leader who encourages us to quake in our boots rather than stand tall in them. And like the Negro in Baldwin’s account of American history, we who reject this fearful portrait of who we are, we who are said not to share the values of authentic Americans, who do not hold America blameless of all sin or matchless among nations, we have been relegated to our “place” and reminded that we hold whatever rights we have only on sufferance and can be deprived of them at will by those who claim “true” Americanness as their exclusive birthright.
There is a poignant moment in I Am Not Your Negro in which Baldwin is challenged by Yale Sterling Professor of Philosophy Paul Weiss. Why does he focus exclusively on race? Weiss asks. Because he has no choice, an indignant Baldwin responds. The black condition is something that has been imposed on him, not chosen. The black is one who is black for others, just as Sartre said the Jew is one who is a Jew for others. As a philosopher and a Jew, Weiss was surely aware of this, and aware, too, that the august position he held at Yale would not always have been available to a man of his origins, no matter what his talent. Yet he refuses to understand Baldwin’s alienation.
Peck’s film reminds us of the conditions that are imposed on us, which inform and deform us and reveal the toxicity of the culture in which we live. At this moment in our history, the example of Baldwin’s deeply felt response to the imposition of a condition is something we need to take to heart, no matter what the color of our skin. And to rebel against it, as Baldwin did, with all the means at our disposal.