Why it is Imperative that African-Americans View James Baldwin’s “I Am Not Your Negro”

I remember the rather sharp exchange with one of my student’s as if it occurred yesterday. We had gotten into an intellectual altercation regarding what exactly made one BLACK. Her assertion was that there were a million ways to be BLACK, so it was, therefore, impossible to either validate or invalidate an individual’s blackness. I vehemently disagreed with her assertion.

A crucial aspect of my position revolved around the fact that if blackness was not biologically based, it must, therefore, be a politically useful social construct found in the minds, worldview, political perspectives and priorities. Put simply; I fervently believe that Race was created to provide whites an opportunity to efficiently cast aside non-whites as they moved to monopolize and then maintain those monopolies over every resource imaginable. I argued that since blackness is a state of mind that grows out of 400 years of experience on the North American continent, there must be something beyond the oppression that we have received at the hands of whites that glues my people together. From my perspective, I believe that the “something beyond the oppression that we have received at the hands of whites” is the intellectual tradition and worldview that we have developed as a result of our collective struggle against American racism. Considering such realities, I call into question not only this particular student’s blackness, but also all African-Americans blackness if they have never studied our great intellectuals who have dedicated their lives to examining, deconstructing, and then destroying socially constructed racial paradigms.

For my money, the leading social critic that Black America has ever created is our dear brother James Baldwin. Considering that I was desperately seeking to end the conflict mentioned above with this particular student, I went for the knockout blow by informing her that “If you haven’t read Baldwin, you are not only unqualified to discuss American race relations, but also unworthy of being considered an educated black person.” Although many may find such a broad statement unfair, it nonetheless reflects my perspective on the poignant writings and social commentary that James Baldwin delivered to an undeserving world.

Much of my intellectual life has been spent lamenting the woes of people whose uninformed perspectives regarding American racial matters would disappear “If only they would read Baldwin.”

So I am confident that you understand my exuberance at hearing Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck had taken on the task of fleshing out an aborted Baldwin project titled “Remember This House.” A house that Baldwin famously stated was burning and therefore Negroes should not seek to integrate into it. Peck’s vision of this project is now in American theaters as the documentary “I am not your Negro.”

Baldwin only wrote thirty pages on a project that was to be his personal account of the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and what it revealed about the nation. Raoul Peck has not only succeeded in bringing “Remember This House” relatively brief sketch to the big screen but also delivered Baldwin’s genius to a new generation of Americans.

One of my consistent critiques of contemporary activists and so-called black leaders is their laziness in regards to engaging the writings of intellectual giants such as W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Marcus Garvey, and Huey P. Newton. Unfortunately, it appears that the unprecedented accessibility of information attributable to the internet, the majority of it not being well-researched, has caused an incurable laziness among the heirs to a rich African-American historical and activist legacy. However, recent experience has taught me that if a workable plan to liberate African-Americans if placed within the covers of a book, the vast majority of our people will never encounter it. They want their information not only to be entertaining but also requiring minimal effort on their part.

It is for this reason that I applaud Raoul Peck for bringing this brilliant documentary to the big screen as it removes all obstacles to African-Americans who have never encountered the unparalleled genius of the intellectual giant that was James Baldwin.

I am not your Negro is a film that you MUST go out and see for your intellectual benefit.

Dr. James Thomas Jones III

© Manhood, Race, and Culture 2017

 

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