I was not much of a student in high school; but when I entered college at Yeshiva University, I had an intellectual awakening. Because I wanted to avoid math courses at all costs, I became a history major and serendipitously became exposed to cutting edge writers and thinkers whose opinions seemed to matter in any discussion of world affairs. One of those was James Baldwin.
Moreover, during the current pandemic quarantine, I read Chronicles, Volume One, an autobiographical account of the early creative years of Bob Dylan, one of the foremost singer/poets of the 20th century. Although not formally educated in college, Dylan had an insatiable curiosity for philosophy and literature in addition to his avid interest in folk music. Many of the songs, artists, and writers mentioned in his autobiography were familiar to me because I, like Dylan, experienced epiphanies of learning in the 1960s. We both lived in New York City at the time and read the same writers.
Although Dylan did not consider himself a prophet of protest, many of his lyrics spoke to the racial inequities of the time. I was, therefore, ripe to watch the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which is based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript entitled “Remember This House.” The book was intended to be a personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his dearest friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, none of whom lived to the age of 40. The film gives voice to the thirty pages of text that remained after Baldwin’s death in 1987.
All three men, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, had different approaches to correcting the systemic racism that they witnessed and experienced in America. What is particularly disturbing is the footage that portrays the prejudice against blacks in the United States. Some of it is archival and some of it is taken from the present day, indicating that old problems are still with us in spite of many people with good intentions who desire to write a new history for blacks in America. The film uses Baldwin’s own language, narrated effectively by Samuel L. Jackson.
What stands out is Baldwin’s use of visceral language to describe the cultural maladies of the day. He is clearly an exceptional chronicler of the American condition. To highlight the movie’s message, Raoul Peck, the filmmaker, employs powerful contrasting images to highlight the way blacks and whites experience America. For example, juxtaposed with the sweet image of a singing Doris Day is a scene of black men being lynched by a white mob. The impression left is that vast numbers of Americans are in denial of the cruel realities of racism, preferring to live in their bubbles of comfortable isolation rather than going out and addressing the lack of civil rights for the outsider that exist in the body politic.
Baldwin reminds people that the stranger, the one who is different from you, should not be dehumanized. It is one of his important observational truths worth pondering. Furthermore, his intellectuality makes him a foe of American consumerism, in which success is only measured in material wealth.
In a thoughtful article by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller, a Jewish educator, she quotes Lev Baruch Perlow, a black sergeant in the Israeli army who lived for many years in Chicago. Perlow offers advice about one way to help stamp out racism. He observes: “At the end of the day we’re people. We’re not more special than another person – we’re the same as you. We have the same rights, the same everything – just a different skin color. We should remember to be kind to the one who is different. Be sensitive. Don’t joke about other people’s differences or try to taunt them. Look at others as fully realized people, not simply as walking embodiments of the color of their skin. It’s pretty simple: treat a black person like you treat yourself, like you treat any other person.”
Perlow’s straight-forward advice resonates in these tumultuous times of racial tension and racial divide. I Am Not Your Negro presents the problem and the challenge. The next step to take is ours.