Saturday, August 1, 2020

Takeaways: I Am Not Your Negro

Raoul Peck's documentary uses the words of James Baldwin and archival material to examine the history of race and the civil rights movement in America.

*From time to time I'll be talking about media I'm consuming in pursuit of knowledge, growth, or help understanding some of these difficult concepts.  These are not movie/tv show/podcast reviews as I'm not discussing how well made they are, rather what I learned from watching them.

I hate to admit that I'd never heard of James Baldwin before this film.  Now that I have I've got several books to add to my reading list as I've heard from multiple sources that he was an amazing writer and had a lot of incredibly powerful spiritual messages.  In my brief exposure to his words in this movie I was struck by how poetically he described heartbreak in the moments of learning of his friend's deaths.  (His friends being Medgar Evers, Lorraine Hansberry, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.)

I don't know if I've ever heard it explained before- of what it feels like to grow up black in a white world, and how strange of a revelation it is to learn that you are black and that this world you live in is not your world.  This one quote sums it up perfectly: "It comes as a great shock around the age of five, or six, or seven, to discover that when Gary Cooper was killing off the indians, while you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the indians were you.  It comes as a great shock to discover the country which is your birth place, and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you."

One of the things that has been recommended by activists, to help white people learn a tiny bit of what it feels like to be black, is to watch only black media and see what that feels like.  I've only dipped my toes into the pool so far with things like Dear White People and Never Have I Ever but even with that tiny amount of exposure I'm already struck by a barrier.  I can admire these characters, and love them, and even empathize with their emotions- but I can never emulate them. 

We white people grow up watching all these role models (for better or worse) and thinking that we can grow up to be them.  To grow up in a world where there are no heroes who look like you, share your history, see the world from inside the same skin- how demoralizing that must be.  And don't get me wrong- I'm not saying I had a lot of great role models.  I see more and more how much of the media I was exposed to growing up portrayed only negative female stereotypes.  But at least there were females I related to.  White females.  I could turn on the tv and see myself in the individuals whose stories I connected with.

Looking at the drive of capitalism and the worship of consumerism as the things that enable people to maintain their ignorance is also pretty profound: "For a very long time, America prospered.  This prosperity cost millions of people their lives.  Now, not even the people who are the most spectacular recipients of the benefits of this prosperity are able to endure these benefits.  They can neither understand them nor do without them.  Above all, they cannot imagine the price paid by their victims, or subjects for this way of life, and so they cannot afford to know why the victims are revolting."

How could I have known that the nice, safe suburban neighborhood I grew up in was built on the literal corpses of an entire race of people?  Especially when I was not taught (and lord knows I wasn't) that not only was this the case, but that this was the way the world worked?  I grew up believing that people survived and thrived based on their own merits (one of the core American myths still being widely perpetuated today). 

The core message that is presented here, and my primary takeaway is this: there is no such thing as a negro.  Much like the fabled black sheep, the black people of this world have inherited the sins of those who cannot and will not look at themselves.  "I have always been struck, in America, by an emotional poverty so bottomless, and a terror of human life- of human touch, so deep that virtually no American seems able to achieve any viable, organic connection between his public stance and his private life.  This failure of the private life has always had the most devastating effect on Americans' public conduct, and on black-white relations.  If Americans were not so terrified of their private selves, they would never have become so dependent on what they call "the negro problem".  This problem which they invented in order to safeguard their purity has made them criminals and monsters, and it is destroying them."

That's the first time that that concept- of black humans as black sheep- has ever been explained to me with such clarity before.  It makes so much goddamned sense.

In the end, I'm left with the final words of the film as a call to action.  Of deep, personal reflection, as to the why- the driving force behind our need to defame, dehumanize, disenfranchise, and destruct:
"It is entirely up the the American people and our representatives whether or not they are going to accept and deal with and embrace the stranger they have maligned so long.  What white people have to do is try to find out, in their own hearts, why it is necessary to have a N* {we all know what racial epithet that's short for.  I'm not writing it out.} in the first place.  Because I am not a N*.  I'm a man.  But if you think I'm a N*, it means you need him.  The question the white population of this country has got to ask itself, if I'm not the N* here, and if you invented him, then you've got to find out why."

I'm trying James Baldwin.  Thanks for pointing me in the right direction.


  1. This post definitely makes me want to add this book to my audible list. I'm currently reading "Water Dancer" and it is about slavery. I think this book is a good one to read during this turbulent time.

    1. It's a documentary, not a book. You can catch it on Netflix!

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