The Painful Truth: “I Am Not Your Negro”

Not Your Negro“The story of the American Negro is the story of America. And it is not a pretty story.” – James Baldwin

I am old enough to have encountered James Baldwin and his writing when I was still a student. Many of us back then read Baldwin’s A Fire Next Time in much the same way that college students today read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Yet despite the passage of more than five decades, white Americans as a whole have remained as clueless as the white “innocents” whom Baldwin both loved and hated—and understood better than they understood themselves.

Despite the passage of more than five decades, white Americans as a whole have remained as clueless as the white “innocents” whom Baldwin both loved and hated—and understood better than they understood themselves.

The opening credits Raoul Peck’s new film, I Am Not Your Negro, identify James Baldwin as the film’s writer, which seems appropriate in that the film is built on Baldwin’s words and on electrifying film clips of interviews and speeches in which he speaks with his distinctive wit and passion. The film’s premise is that Baldwin, toward the end of his life, was attempting in a never-written book to bring three slain heroes—Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin King—into clearer focus in relation to one another. By means of this device the film also seeks to bring the tumultuous racial history of the 1950s and 60s into sharper focus.

But Baldwin’s whole point (and to feel the full force of it, you simply have to read his essays) was always that most American whites would much prefer to live outside of history, free of any nagging reminders of all the blood that was shed and all the bodies that were broken to make The American Way of Life possible. His point was not just that whiteness is socially constructed but that whiteness is constructed around the exercise of power and terror.

D.H. Lawrence surfaced somewhat similar insights in his 1923 Studies in Classic American Literature, but no other writer ever plunged as deeply into the deep waters of American Denial as James Baldwin did.

With surgical precision, Baldwin traced the restlessness and joylessness and violence of white American life to this never-ending suppression of reality, which of course can never really be repressed or evaded. Baldwin insisted that this failed effort at suppression also accounts for why white people so crave forgiveness from Black people. Whites desperately need the cheap grace of Black people saying “you’re okay, you didn’t really mean it, we’re all sinners here.”

No one who sees this film will be able to stroll away thinking what terrible times those 1960s were, and thank God we made it to a better place, electing a Black president and all. Viewers will be forced instead to confront the painful truth that the blindness and cruelty James Baldwin saw so clearly and confronted so eloquently not only still persist but played an absolutely central role in the rise of the phenomenon we now call Trumpism. Baldwin would have understood Trumpism perfectly; he would not have been surprised.

peter laarmanAs the genuinely patriotic and uncannily prescient Jimmy Baldwin grasped only too well, we are still a long, long way from achieving our country.

Peter Laarman

About Peter Laarman

Rev. Peter Laarman serves on the Justice Not Jails steering committee. He formerly directed Progressive Christians Uniting, the LA-based network of activist individuals and congregations that first launched Justice Not Jails in 2012 as a multifaith initiative. He served as the senior minister of New York’s Judson Memorial Church from 1994 to 2004. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, Peter spent 15 years as a labor movement strategist and communications specialist prior to training for ministry.

Comments

  1. Inman Moore says:

    A very excellent article. The truths that Laarman writes about are still painfully true. I pride myself on being a “progressive.” But I am a long ways from fully understanding what that means. While doing my best, I, and the bulk of American citizens, am still trying to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. This, of course, is also true of recent immigrants.

    Growing up in the segregated South, I accepted the status quo without giving much thought to the gross inequities it fostered. As a graduate student James Baldwin was one of the writers that put me on the road to civil rights.

    I hope and pray that my journey never ends. Thanks Peter for reminding us of the importance of always moving on to higher levels of understanding.

  2. Rev.Jim Conn says:

    And this is a GREAT film…Be sure to see it!

  3. jerilyn stapleton says:

    This film is a “must-see”…very well done and enlightening!