The 21st century was supposed to be one where racism in the U.S. did not exist, where prejudice and hate crimes will be forever remembered as parts of shameful past. But James Baldwin knew better. The late American intellectual, novelist, essayist and civil rights advocate knew that the country would continue to go through historic spasms predicated on race.
The result is “I am Not Your Negro”, probably one of the most startlingly thought-provoking films on race in the past decade. Peck has assembled some of the most potent and iconic images and footage from the civil rights movement in the U.S. and paired it with Samuel L. Jackson’s amazingly nuanced reading. The effect is nothing short of a sort of weaponization of Baldwin’s words. If you’ve ever spent a significant time living in the U.S., the film casts a very long shadow on the country’s shameful and embarrassing history of slavery and injustice done to minorities. To put it bluntly, you’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to walk out of the theater profoundly angry with the world.
It’s also obvious that not much has changed since the birth of this nation. The racism that tens of millions of African Americans and other minorities suffered is alive and well, albeit in a form that’s a lot more subtle and integrated into a system that masks prejudice. One just has to look at the Voter ID laws in some conservative parts of the country that keeps whole segments of the population, specifically poor black people, from participating in the elections.
Ahmad Coo is a producer and copy editor for the Global Business America show on CCTV America. His analysis represents his views alone.
As a member of what they infuriatingly and inaccurately call “the model minority”, I understand how the system works. I was never aware of being “Asian” before I moved to this country to study and live years ago. But in a system that emphasizes race division, I have increasingly become painfully aware of my “otherness”. I’m not saying that racism doesn’t exist in my homeland. The Philippines isn’t a prejudice-free country, but I’d like to believe that racism back home isn’t as institutionalized there as it is in the United States. Comparing my country’s shared history with my adopted one, the American political elite have consciously adopted a government that highlights the differences between all the ethnicities that make up this messy amalgamation of a country. The Philippine political system was more a product of a revolt against colonialism.
Of course there have been instances in U.S. history when the fight for civil rights had solid gains. From Rosa Parks to the Freedom Rides to the Million Man March, the country’s history is also full of heartening moments of triumph. If you’re interested in learning more about one of the more pivotal historical events in the fight for civil rights in the U.S., this writer recommends reading the excellent “March” series written by Congressman John Lewis who participated in the Freedom Rides and the historic march on Selma, Alabama.
Unfortunately, the current political climate in the U.S. has seemingly rolled back some of those civil rights gains. But if there’s anything that these setbacks indicate, it’s that this country’s history is more cyclical than linear. It’s easy to forget, especially with an unforgiving 24-hour news cycle, that before the election of the reality show mega-star, the U.S. had a black President for two terms. Of course, there are historians who will say that civil rights liberties didn’t make any significant advances during Obama’s presidency. If you subscribe to the idea that what goes around comes around, Trump’s ascension is logical. Would an Obama White House have been possible without eight years of George Bush?
Regrettably, most of the culture that’s manufactured nowadays tries to smooth over the most sordid parts of this country’s history. Watch any Hollywood blockbuster of the past decade and tell me if black people- or any minority for that matter- have been properly and fairly represented in it. Of course Moonlight’s recent best picture pickup is a step in the right direction. But one Academy Award win does not a restitution make.
Indeed, accolades and celebrations of African American community are empty if the past is ignored. This obfuscation of U.S. history – especially in the struggle for civil rights – is highlighted by Peck in the film by the juxtaposition of pictures of black men and women hanging from trees after being lynched with Baldwin’s words read by Jackson:
You cannot lynch me and keep me in the ghettos
without becoming something monstrous yourselves.
And furthermore, you give me a terrifying advantage.
You never had to look at me.
I had to look at you.
I know more about you than you know about me.
Not everything that is faced can be changed;
But nothing can be changed until it is faced.
Peck saves his strongest punch for the end of the film where we see Baldwin speaking to an interviewer off camera.
We hear him say that the future of African-Americans in this country is precisely as bright and or as dark as the future of this country. This is so because of a very simple reason: without the sacrifice of the black people, this country would not have come into existence. Going a little further, Baldwin says that it’s entirely up to the American people to embrace this stranger who they have maligned for so long.
In the final sequence, Peck lets Baldwin’s haunting visage address the audience.
“What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a [N-word] in the first place, because I’m not a [N-word], I’m a man. But if you think I’m a [N-word], it means you need him,” Baldwin said.
“If I’m not the [N-word] here and you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it is able to ask that question.”
To Baldwin, this push and pull of history between civil rights victories and setbacks will continue indefinitely, with the country going through periods of violent upheaval. Peck deftly illustrates this dynamic by juxtaposing old footage of civil rights activists getting attacked by police and dogs in the 1960s with riots and protesters taking to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in 2015. It’s obvious to the viewer that not much has changed. Violence begets violence and this nation was born of it. The United States was built on the back of slaves who bore the brutality of the founders of this nation. Until Americans come to terms with their history, it will repeat itself.
And indeed it has. You can draw a straight line from the lynching of Emmett Till in the 1950s to the police shootings and killings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, etc. The most recent high profile deaths just serve to validate much of Baldwin’s fears about the state of race relations. Unfortunately, his work still remains relevant today. One just has to listen to Trump acolyte Ben Carson spew his nonsense about slaves being immigrants to realize that the trauma of slavery will always be in the back of our minds.