“My countrymen were my enemy”
Author James Baldwin‘s powerful rhetoric can be perfectly summed up by his statement on “The Dick Cavett Show” concerning Patrick Henry’s 1775 quotation, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” He explains how a world oppressed can utter that line with conviction and be applauded whether they’re American, Irish, Jewish, or Polish, but as soon as a black person does he/she is treated like the devil. He/she becomes an enemy of the state, a villain, and a “thug.” It’s therefore not the black community’s responsibility to be something or change something; it’s a matter of the white community acknowledging what it is they fear. What is it about a black man that makes him less human and unable to possess the same passionate drive for life as you?
This is the question he asks America for his nation’s survival. This is the notion that whites must reconcile before they can ever hope to find peace. And maybe it’s a sign that the American experiment has failed. We’re the ones with the most violence, domestic terrorism, and complete disregard for human life. We’re the ones ready to ignite genocide simply because a man half the country believes will condone it has been elected President. For all the good democracy and the Constitution has done and for all the power and control the United States has accrued and earned, we are still broken to a devastating level. Until we’re willing to see and understand the injustice that so many declare a fallacy, it will never be fixed.
Baldwin spoke on this idea for education and empathy in 1979 as part of a letter written to his literary agent describing an unfinished manuscript entitled Remember This House. In it Baldwin was to write about the experience of being black in America by searching through the causes and effect of the assassinations of three close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He wrote thirty pages before his death in 1987 and they could very well be describing the state of America today in 2016. As such, filmmaker Raoul Peck has ingeniously crafted a documentary set to those words (and others via archival footage) of pop culture entertainment, the civil rights movement, and visions of the present entitled I Am Not Your Negro.
The title is a statement rejecting ownership as well as an admonishment of the label. Baldwin is a man. People of color are men and women. They grew up in a world with the same heroes as white children only to discover they’re actually the enemy being slain. And it isn’t about initiative or self-motivation to rise above. You can’t simply “overcome” when the system dictating your way of life has been built to hijack success. This is a reality minorities face the world over no matter color, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. This is why a female politician with decades of experience (regardless of her politics) does unsavory things to sniff the presidency while a buzzword charlatan spewing hate can effortlessly ascend from boardroom to Oval Office.
Through Samuel L. Jackson‘s measured, emotional, and dignified narration, Baldwin speaks about revolts and lynching while video of Rodney King and Ferguson, MO play onscreen. It’s as though he were alive watching. But he isn’t. He isn’t prophesizing either. He’s talking about America in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, a fact that proves how we haven’t evolved. Open Twitter and Facebook today to witness the horrific acts of abuse in the name of a four-day old President-Elect who refuses to curb that venom despite already having won and realize we might have even gotten worse. The sad revelation of Baldwin’s lecture is that it has proven timeless. Peck could have made this film twenty years ago (or God forbid twenty years from now) and it would remain imperative.
He’s not preaching like King or sparking an incendiary revolution like Malcolm. Baldwin’s merely contextualizing a truth and asking us to look within and find how we’re adding to the problem. He’s articulating a state of being that has only improved superficially and has actually expanded to include other minorities, LGBTQ, and more as groups of humans feared for no other reason than ignorance. We know things haven’t changed because we look out our windows today and see swastikas, epithets, and violence. We see a public desperately afraid that history is being made in an image of hate. #BlackLivesMatter isn’t a movement about superiority; it’s a plea to matter as much as you without consciously deciphering how not to die in a society excluding them as rule.
Peck’s film is therefore requisite viewing for today’s climate of instability. Baldwin knows change will be bloody and that the survival of the black community (and by extension all marginalized groups beside it) is crucial to the country’s continued prosperity. We’ve already been knocked down a few pegs internationally on education, morality, and violence. We’re already a powder keg waiting to explode on a nation scale beyond incidents in inner cities documented and shared via social media. An interstate in Iowa—yes, Iowa—was shut down due to protestors against the proposed acts against civil liberties that Donald Trump and Mike Pence’s platform condones. We are not America’s anything. It is ours. If you let it harm any one part, who’s to say it doesn’t harm you next?