James Baldwin’s world view, expressed in his novels, essays and plays, sprang from his Harlem upbringing, his lack of paternity, and his “otherness.” He lived in extreme poverty as a child. The circumstances of his early life in the then largely working class, black section of Manhattan, came to symbolize for Baldwin the disenfranchisement of all African-Americans, and white indifference to that plight, the great moral poverty of a nation. In Notes of a Native Son (1955), his most well-known collection of essays, Baldwin calls himself “a kind of bastard of the West.” That statement eloquently articulates the social reality that the writer chronicled as a gay man of color.
Nearly 100 years after Baldwin’s birth, when his work is enjoying a renaissance (although it has never lost its relevancy for African-Americans), which is evinced in Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s biographical documentary I Am Not Your Negro. (It has received an Academy Award nomination.) The skillfully directed documentary highlights Baldwin’s insights into race relations in the United States, his “narration” flowing over iconic photographs of Civil Rights era protests, and images of Ferguson, Missouri, that Peck has transformed to black and white, underlining the startling historical continuity. Samuel L. Jackson lends his resonant voice in a performance all its own, not a mimicking of Baldwin’s inflection and tone, but rather a vocal interpretation of his prose.
Peck is the writer-director of Lumumba (2000), a celebrated biopic about the first prime minister of the Belgian Congo, and the excellent documentary Fatal Assistance (2013), an exposé of the aid debacle following Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. The filmmaker grants the writing credit in I Am Not Your Negro to James Baldwin whose words comprise the entire voice-over track. Baldwin also appears in video clips of “The Dick Cavett Show,” a televised interview with celebrated psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark, and in his famous 1965 debate with William F. Buckley at Cambridge University. Through still photographs, archival footage and new footage of racial unrest, as well as clips from feature films that serve as a springboard of Baldwin’s astute critique of American society, Peck brilliantly illustrates the continuing relevance of the writer’s work.
James Baldwin was born to Berdis Jones on August 2nd, 1924, at Harlem Hospital, and although he did not know his real father, Baldwin had a stepfather, David Baldwin. He was a conservative preacher who resented his young stepson’s decision not to follow in his footsteps. Fortunately, James Baldwin’s talent was recognized and fostered by a series of teachers and mentors, including “Bill” Ayer, a white teacher who took the boy to plays and movies, and the poet Countee Cullen who made him a member of his literary club. In I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin mentions Ayer as one of the reasons he could not hate white people; he recounts her kindnesses to him and his family at the beginning of the title essay in Notes on a Native Son.
Peck emphasizes the prophetic nature of Baldwin’s writing, most poignantly in a passage in which the writer remarks: “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America.” When Baldwin examined his country’s narrative, he discovered the source of Americans’ “death of the heart,” and in the documentary speaks directly to it: “You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming monsters yourselves.” Baldwin, who died in 1987, never attended college, yet he was a respected intellectual here and abroad. He moved to Paris when he was 24 and lived and wrote there for nine years, returning to the U.S. in 1957. Through his friendships with Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, he became active in the Civil Rights Movement.
Baldwin’s agent, Jay Action, asked him to write about these relationships, but he struggled with the task, and produced only 30 pages. These unpublished pages were the inspiration for I Am Not Your Negro, a title drawn from Baldwin’s observation that a “nigger” is an invention of white society. While younger audiences may find Peck’s freewheeling chronology somewhat confusing because they have no living memory of the Civil Rights era, or indeed of African-American life in the early 20th century of Baldwin’s youth, I Am Not Your Negro comes very close to achieving what the writer’s incisive and often poetic prose represents to his readers, namely a profound articulation of the inner journey for identity.