It wasn't until recently that I realized how often black people in America fear for their lives.
In reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me, I was struck by how he referred to the "black body" and the peril it went through on a near-daily basis. It was a very visceral description, emphasizing the literal weakness of flesh when attacked by enemy forces. And he made it very clear that there were numerous enemies out there for black men and women, as did Gilbert King's Devil in the Grove and Wesley Lowery's They Can't Kill Us All.
And now, Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro has emerged to reinforce these crushing sentiments and open more willing eyes to what the black experience is like in America. Through the stories, essays, and commentaries of the brilliant writer James Baldwin, Peck tells a story of American racism that reminds us how far we haven't come in the 50-plus years since Baldwin's friends were killed for supporting civil rights.
Simply slapping together some footage of the erudite and charismatic Baldwin would be interesting enough, but we're graced with a far more thoughtful film that was over a decade in the making. Peck apparently received unparalleled access to the Baldwin archives, yet struggled for years to determine how exactly to cut it all together. Eventually, he decided to focus on an unfinished memoir that recollected Baldwin's time with the murdered Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., intercut with images and video of black strife both past and present.
In one of the documentary's strongest moments, Baldwin offers his opinion on a then-recent comment from Robert F. Kennedy, who says in 40 years there may even be a black president. Baldwin notes that, in the history of American politics, Kennedy is a relative newcomer. Meanwhile, for hundreds of years, black Americans have been routinely dismissed, enslaved, and murdered at the hands of their white leaders. How nice, he says, of Bobby Kennedy to allot them such an option.
Fortunately, the decade that Peck spent stewing over and refining this film brought us that first black president. Unfortunately, it also included the needless loss of so many black lives, President Donald Trump, and the growing observation that race relations hadn't—and wouldn't—get better.
Baldwin isn't resigned to America as a lost cause, nor is Peck. Instead, Baldwin believes that being an American means criticizing your country for its flaws and pushing it to be better. He addresses his time abroad—when he was exhausted from a fearful life in the United States and subsequently missed very few elements of American culture—by stating that he came home both to fight for change and to see his family again. Even if hot dogs and the Statue of Liberty didn't do it for him, his roots were forever here.
All of the dialogue in I Am Not Your Negro comes directly from Baldwin, delivered either from the man himself in archival footage or read as voiceover by a restrained yet impassioned Samuel L. Jackson. It's an ambitious approach, which explains the 10 years of production, but it serves the dual purpose of reintroducing Baldwin to a younger audience and delivering his message unfettered.
Peck, a Haitian who grew up in both Kinshasa and Brooklyn, did not go into this project lightly. He reverently brings us many shades of the man: in heated conversation on The Dick Cavett Show; in a debate at Oxford; addressing the deaths of each of his three friends. At one point, Baldwin ends an argument and sits to profuse cheers from an audience of white spectators. He looks around in what appears to be confusion, perhaps wondering how such reverence and such hate can come from the same group of people.
Over and over again, Baldwin states that he's terrified. Not of a specific opponent or concern, but because he knows what happens to black people—specifically those who oppose the system or step out of line—and he's almost bracing himself for an eventual demise.
That's not how Baldwin went; he died of stomach cancer in 1987. But to consume the work of Baldwin, and the more recent authors who carry on if not his style then his viewpoint, is to chuck aside the lame assertions that "racism is fading" and accept the issues for what they are. Though more privileged black people may not feel the same sting, here is a writer 50 years ago in Baldwin and a writer 2 years ago in Coates expressing genuine fear when it comes to everyday life. To disregard their experiences is to be willfully ignorant and openly oppose the ideas of tolerance, understanding, and respect for all.
Baldwin's message, so powerfully presented by Peck, is that there is no white history or black history. The two are intertwined; there is only human history. And black people exist in this condition, with these stereotypes and fears, because white people have created them. He challenged all races to consider their prejudices and where they come from, implying that ignorance and separation are racism's driving forces. Both then and now, his words ring true.