“There Is No New Thing Under The Sun.”
Directed by Raoul Peck / 2016
From the beginning, let me be clear. I won’t do this extraordinary piece of art justice. I am no wordsmith nor a poet. Furthermore I am a white woman from South Carolina. I can never fully comprehend the struggle of the African American in the USA whether it is 1957 or 2017. What I hope to convey is the importance of seeing I Am Not Your Negro and thinking through the prophetic words of James Baldwin. By 2016, the band-aid that had been placed over the gaping wound of American race relations was ripped apart. The deaths of multiple black men at the hands of mostly white police officers revealed the gangrenous sore we have been living with since… Since 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. Since 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham. Since the 1940’s Klu Klux Klan and Jim Crow Laws. Since the Civil War and the slavery of the African people. We have tried to mend this wound with an inadequate bandage each and every time. To quote James Baldwin “The story of the negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.” This is why I Am Not Your Negro is important, timely, and relevant to the America we live in today! We need to look at history, listen to the stories, and pray for true healing.
So who is James Baldwin? Baldwin was an African American writer, novelist, playwright and poet who lived from 1924 to 1987. His works Nobody Knows My Name, Notes Of A Native Son and others explore the racial, sexual and class distinctions in western culture. He spent a great amount of time in Europe, specifically Paris, but returned to America the summer of 1957. Baldwin responded “It was time I went home and paid my dues” and he began to lend his unique and powerful voice to the Civil Rights Movement. He was friends with activists Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Lorraine Hansberry writer of A Raisin In The Sun. In I Am Not Your Negro director Raoul Peck used an unpublished work of Baldwins, Remember This House, to walk from 1957, when Baldwin returned to America, to 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Peck uses those years and words mixed with images from current American race conflicts to show that not much has changed in 60 years.
“Baldwin’s words are the bifocals that make all the hurt, hate and division clear.”
Baldwin was not against the “white devils”. He was not part of the Black Panthers, NAACP, or even a member in an African American congregation. I Am Not Your Negro is a tough American history lesson in beautiful words, not hate speech. He describes the first time Malcolm X ever listen to him speak in public and how nervous he was. He recounts the relationship that formed between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. He spoke kindly about his 4th grade white teacher and how she taught him about the world. Baldwin recounts “that tears seemed futile” when Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. He talks about institutions like segregation that lead to a lack of understanding and the absence of apathy. (THAT MAKES SO MUCH SENSE!) Never once as a white woman did I feel belittled or demonized by the words of Baldwin or the directing of Peck. If anything I felt more connected to my fellow citizens and compassion for their cause. Baldwin’s words are the bifocals that make all the hurt, hate and division clear. Not only was he a poet and a writer, he had a keen sense to actually see the world and to understand. He looks at America and says, “We must realize this, no other country had been so happy and so fat and so lazy for so long. When we say democracy, this is what we mean. But lives so empty and so tame become so ugly.” And this is when I tell you the narrator is Samuel L. Jackson. Don’t imagine Jules Winnfield from Pulp Fiction nor Nick Fury from The Avengers. No, this is a subdued, serious and seasoned Jackson that carries the weight of the conversation. I personally did not realize it was Jackson until the credits rolled. So, now that the hurt, hate and division are clear, what do we do? What do we do with this wound?
“Nothing can be changed until it is faced! We are our history, if we pretend otherwise we are criminals.” James Baldwin
I Am Not Your Negro is important, Baldwin forces you to face the challenge, to see the history and to look at America in all it’s courage and ugliness. But has anything changed in 60 years, will it ever change? In Ecclesiastes 1:8&9 Solomon laments, “All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it… What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” He is devoid of hope. Life has lost it’s meaning and he is lost. Living in America I can relate to Solomon. Our comfortable segregated lives keep us fat and tame and lacking in apathy. What has changed since Dorothy Scott desegregated that Charlotte high school in 1957? In 2016 we watched 9 year old Zianna Oliphant in Charlotte cry “I’ve come here today to talk about how I feel, and I feel like we are treated differently than other people. All we want is just to have our equal rights and we want to be treated the same way as other people.”
But… to quote Chance The Rapper, “The book didn’t end with Malachi”! (Or Ecclesiastes) There is hope! For every ugly comment or post I see on Facebook there are two that show mercy and understanding. We are witnesses to lawyers standing in the gap, churches reaching out, and communities uniting. And last year I watched as my denomination, the Presbyterian Church of America repented for its racist actions during the civil rights era. This is a start, the ache has been recognized. I have to hope that this wound can heal. That is the only way forward for me. Not pointing fingers but mending and hoping. And I have to listen to Jesus when He said “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I have to continue to learn and to listen and to pray.
I urge you to watch 13th, OJ: Made In America, Loving, Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Fences, Race, Miss Sharon Jones!, and I Am Not Your Negro this month, Black History Month. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn and listen through film! I Am Not Your Negro opens in select theaters February 3rd.