When I watched the James Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, for the second time, I pondered the intended audience. Who was the your in the title, I wondered. What does your average White James Baldwin fan really know about Negroes, I wondered.
Who was the your in the title, I wondered.
Both times I waited in line for the film, I stood in a stream of mostly middle- to late-aged, well-to-do, eye-glassed White people. Both times they hummed, nodded, and clapped at the end of the documentary. Also before both viewings, a trailer for some black-and-white, French-drenched romance swelled on screen. A tear ran down a woman’s cheek, orchestral music gushed beneath the subtitles. Might the mostly White audience for a Baldwin documentary also be interested in such highbrow melodrama?
Yes, if only because James Baldwin’s story has a dramatic sweep to it. He was the gay, Black son of a shoeshine man. He was the poor boy preacher who pulled himself out of poverty by means of a silver tongue. Baldwin’s peculiar face alone was a feat of shifting, morphing emotional theatrics. It is the first thing Haitian director Raoul Peck puts on screen: Baldwin’s amazing face on a talk show. His chain-smoking barely cloaks his cautiousness. Against a blue set background, Baldwin’s visage is the color and feel of wet driftwood. His big eyes look a little lost, self-absorbed while absorbing everything. His poise was sometimes mistaken as haughtiness. His inherent shyness could be mistaken as meekness.
Maybe Baldwin seemed harmless to the mid-20th-century American talk show audience. He was not as suave as Harry Belafonte, nor as tall as Malcolm X, nor as sonorous as Martin Luther King Jr. Sometimes in the footage he is slightly hunched (note the scene of the standing ovation in Cambridge for evidence) as if there is something wounded in him. He is forthcoming, forthright, and compassionate. Indignation and pride, testimony and witness whistle through the gap in his teeth.
He seems, to the White imagination, a safe American Negro.
Who before Baldwin put such an existential fire to Blackness?
The film may be a mostly auditory encounter. The script consists of Baldwin’s writing and interviews. You can drift for stretches on his language. His prose style, like his manner, owes something to Emersonian Enlightenment and Black Church rhythms. His sentences can lull with the seriousness of a book report or sermon if read by the wrong person. Both times, I was almost lulled to sleep at the start of the documentary. Narrator Samuel L. Jackson underplays his trademark vernacular jolts, and the result is a drowsy monotone. Very Ken Burns, very PBS mini-series gravitas. Both times I wondered who other than Jackson could have conveyed Baldwin’s tone. Not Morgan Freeman, for too much affability; not Angela Basset, for too much theatricality. Maybe Oprah Winfrey, whose voice can hit the sly notes of a trickster. Toni Morrison, obviously, if I could have anyone on the planet read me James Baldwin sentences for a couple of hours.
But he’s got to be in the top five of any serious list of American prose stylists. His sentences are conscious but just shy of flamboyant. Read his prose if you’re looking for evidence. Listen to the film. When I closed my eyes in the theater, I could hear Jackson breathing carefully between James Baldwin’s winding, twirling sentences; he never sounded calmer. He might have been stupefied reading Baldwin. Who before Baldwin put such an existential fire to Blackness? Everything he wrote and said concerned the lives of Black people. Baldwin had plans for a book about Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.; he knew each of them. The book would be an elegy to his brothers, a testament to brave, brilliant Black men, a record of the civil rights struggle. (It was a good idea. Why didn’t it happen? Perhaps shifts in the publishing economy meant Baldwin’s editor was unable to secure the advance necessary to fund Baldwin’s travel, housing, and research; or Baldwin’s editor, having received over the years several other book ideas, typed hastily and smelling of sea salt, extravagant wine, and tobacco, was well aware of the size of advance necessary to fund Baldwin’s travel, housing, and research.) Baldwin’s notes for the book provide the film’s scaffolding. His language runs seamlessly from images of the last century to footage of Black Lives Matter, from shots of Times Square post-9/11 to shots of Black people staring nobly into the camera.
Could I Am Not Your Negro have been made at any time in the past 40 years or so? Yes, because Baldwin’s sensibility and sentences are timeless. Yes, because Baldwin’s concern for America is akin to a doctor’s concern for a terminal patient. There is some cynicism in what I’m suggesting here. He doesn’t believe there is medicine to cure White people: He is trying to describe a disease called racism. Sometimes he is as measured as a counselor. Sometimes he is as hot as a preacher. Sometimes he’s a comic. In the 1960s, Bobby Kennedy said that a Negro could be president of the United States sometime in the foreseeable future. In the documentary, Baldwin almost winks at Kennedy’s assertion, before mocking it.
If one must ask permission to be free, it ain’t freedom.
Both times I saw the film, the audience chuckled at this scene. As if the idea of a Black president were still ridiculous, somehow. As if Obama’s time had been a dream. It is very likely White people have far fewer definitions of Negro than Black people do. I have never used the word as an adjective, as in “Negro College Fund,” for example. (I also have never said the words “National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,” out loud.) With Black people, Negro is not neutral. It is used ironically, euphemistically, dismissively, always in judgment. As in: Several Negroes showed up at James Baldwin’s funeral. For my mother, saditty is a synonym for Negro. I am a Negro sometimes. The ending of I Am Not Your Negro implies Baldwin might have titled the film I Am Not Your Nigger. In the closing scene, he uses the word with an almost imperceptible grimace, a questioning of familiar, fickle labels like Negro, Black, African American. Yes, this makes the film timeless. James Baldwin is always on time. After considering Bobby Kennedy’s talk of foreseeable emancipation, Baldwin scoffs at the notion of permission. It is not that Baldwin couldn’t imagine a Negro president; it’s that he couldn’t believe the vanity of White folk. Their assumption of White power is so pervasive that they can’t see beyond it. (If one must ask permission to be free, it ain’t freedom. If one must ask for power, it ain’t power.)
The irony, of course, is that Bobby Kennedy’s prediction for America was, for a moment, more accurate than Baldwin’s prediction. It seemed, for a moment, we had come around a big bend on the racial mountain. It seemed, for a moment, we were beyond Negro. It’s unlikely Kennedy considered the difference between a Negro president and a Black president. An African American president. Barack Obama seemed to have struggled with the distinctions himself. Me too, Brother. I have been the Black person saying to another Black person, “I am not your Negro.” I have also been the Black person saying to the mirror, “I am not your nigger.”
Terrance Hayes is an award-winning author and poet. His most recent book is To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight. He is an Artist-in-Residence in the creative writing program at New York University.