The question should not be – have you heard of James Baldwin – but really, have you met James Baldwin? His writing style is so personal it gives readers gooseflesh. Of course, this documentary authored by him has the same quality. While I know, intellectually, it is Samuel L. Jackson’s resonant voice speaking Baldwin’s words, I feel the deep questions he poses to me as if he were sitting right next to me. Questions like, since there is no such thing as the “n-word” in reality, why was it invented? Why do white people need this word?
The quest, Baldwin tells us, is to journey through the deaths of three famous civil rights icons: Medger Evers, Malcolm X, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Often times when we look back at history and these peoples lives are confined to paper. They are flattened; their connections severed. With the richness film offers we can see the connections all four of these men had in reshaping a nation towards its highest ideals. There’s James Baldwin, grinning his deeply wrinkled smile behind the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s back, as if they were ready to enjoy a fabulous night of hi-jinx. Here’s Malcom X, intently listening to James Baldwin’s lecture, and there are three of them, Baldwin, King, and Malcolm all sharing their lofty visions on how to get the United States to a better place. You see the faces of Medger Ever’s children at their father’s funeral, after James Baldwin shares how they witnessed his murder in the carport of their family home. These icons never stood alone, but were always together in a bond of friendship that changed a nation.
A day after seeing the film Baldwin’s words float over images from the movie in my mind. White is not an actual race, but a symbol of power, I hear, over the images of black families holding their white-colored children with their straight hair. I am, James Baldwin says with an old fashioned tape recorder looped around his neck, flesh of your flesh and bone of your bone. I am white and black, he says of his family’s genealogy. But because of the color of his skin, he is never accepted in white spaces.
There are times when the jarring imagery of the film doesn’t work for me. It feels like the clips of Native Americans shown in the film far outnumber the times their genocide is actually mentioned; as if the film director wanted the deaths of native americans whites commited on our minds as much as we are listening to when whites enslaved and brutalized African-Americans. There is a point where the floating heads of politicians apologize but I feel that their apologies are out of context. It rapidly flashes between the clashes of the Black Lives Matter movement with the police to the actions of African-Americans in the 60’s – whether it was school children trying to go to class or folks trying to eat in the ‘whites-only’ section part of restaurants.
This suggests that today is just as bad as it was yesterday. Since I am not black I can’t comment if that is true, but I can comment on the actions of white people back then and how they are acting today. I feel that while the president dog-whistles at white supremacists, and there is a white supremacist as a National Security Advisor, that is not as bad as it was in the 50’s, when it was respectable to belong to the KKK. White supremacy has yet to regain this respectability in my time, and it is because of the successes of the black leaders of the civil rights movement that this is so. I hope that the strong outcry from all people of all ethnicities will continue to resonate so loudly it cannot be ignored; we will not go back to a time in which school children where explicitly told which drinking fountain to drink from, which playground to play in, which careers they were allowed to take.
If you are scared, upset, strongly disagree, if you are uncomfortable by the questions Baldwin poses, or the the things he shares then you are on the right track towards growth and I encourage you to meet him too by watching this film or reading his books. This film showed to me a man who did not make the case for civil rights on a christian or muslim or classist basis, but out of a deep love for all of humanity. My only regret is that the documentary did not include my favorite words of James Baldwin:
“The role of the artist is exactly the same role, I think, as the role of the lover. If you love somebody, you honor at least two necessities at once. One of them is to recognize something very dangerous, or very difficult. Many people cannot recognize it at all, that you may also be loved; love is like a mirror. In any case, if you do love somebody, you honor the necessity endlessly, and being at the mercy of that love, you try to correct the person whom you love. Now, that’s a two-way street. You’ve also got to be corrected. As I said, the people produce the artist, and it’s true. The artist also produces the people. And that’s a very violent and terrifying act of love. The role of the artist and the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see. Insofar as that is true, in that effort, I become conscious of the things that I don’t see. And I will not see without you, and vice versa, you will not see without me. No one wants to see more than he sees. You have to be driven to see what you see. The only way you can get through it is to accept that two-way street which I call love. You can call it a poem, you can call it whatever you like. That’s how people grow up. An artist is here not to give you answers but to ask you questions.”
— James Baldwin, “The Black Scholar Interviews James Baldwin,” Conversations with James Baldwin (edited by Fred L. Standley and Louis H. Pratt)