In an attempt to persuade the then president of the United States of America John F. Kennedy through his attorney brother Bobby Kennedy, James Baldwin along with Lorrain Hansberry, a playwright, and couple of other members of the community, met. The persuasion was that the president would walk a small black girl into her classroom who was scheduled to enter a deep south school. So that whoever spits on the child will be “spitting on the nation.”
That didn’t go as planned. The president felt it would be “a meaningless moral gesture.”
Lorrain Hansberry said it is frightening to see the state of the civilization that produced the photograph of a police officer “standing on that negro woman’s neck in Birmingham.” And she smiled looking at the president. And she walked out.
Baldwin said he was happy she didn’t smile looking at him.
“Standing on that negro woman’s neck in Birmingham.”
I was being constantly reminded of that line the last couple of days… And I tried to imagine her smile. And the thousand million things it said which she didn’t uttered with words. And I thought of the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro”, which chronicles the years that followed the murders of the three prominent Civil Rights activists, and its effect on James Baldwin.
I’ve watched I am not Your Negro back in 2016. The world was stepping into a new territory. Preparation of which marinated quite comfortably in homes and streets for quite some time. Denial wasn’t working back then for America. The renewed and improved Swastikas and tiki torches were marching on the streets with thunderous shriek.
I read James Baldwin for quite selfish reasons. I read him because he soothes me. Because the cries I held into me my entire life comes out listening to him. I cry and then I feel like a feather. Not without grief, but with much more of life. The pages of his books are filled with sorrow so heavy, and yet at the end I feel unburdened.
How marvelous is that!
Like an epiphany, reading Baldwin I realized that in life, there is not just the heaviness that crouches on the chest like a hyena, but there is a forest too, right behind it.
Not make light of the situation, but make the situation not lose any detail. Not love, not laughter, not friendship and music.
Besides the autobiographies like Notes of a Native Son, that speaks how the system that was built to deny the humanity of the dark skinned people result in not only the obvious racisms but in immense loss of beauty, in self-hatred, sadness beyond recuperation, self-harm and waste of bright sharp minds, the novel that really shook me and later, upon finishing it, made me just hug the book in tight embrace in silence, is If Beale Street Could Talk. A love story, of two young Black lovers who lived on the Beale Street, and in light rain and dim lights searched for an apartment where they could nestle in. Clementine “Tish” Rivers and Alonzo “Fonny”, Fonny who wouldn’t let go Tish’s hand walking down the street. What I couldn’t cope with was, how Fonny was made to let go, of the lover’s hand he held like it was a piece of his heart. Made to let go, because Fonny, in a false and made up charge, was arrested and sent away in prison like so many of his Black brothers, counting till today.
The documentary I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck, is solely the words of James Baldwin. The director, who is simply brilliant, added images to those words that make them as vivid as they needed to be. And the combination is a punch in the gut and a salve on the sore. A closure.
It breaks the heart and makes the broken pieces whole.
At the very beginning, the documentary read, “In 1979, Baldwin committed to a complex endeavor, tell his story of America through the live of three of his murdered friends. “ The friends are, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Medgar died first. As a member of the NAACP, Medgar was investigating the murder of a black man.
And Medgar who wore his weariness “ like his skin.”
Malcolm was next. Malcolm who said “our freedom can’t wait.”
And then Martin. Who spoke of dreams. Who marched and gave hope to the jaded and beaten black masses. Who was beaten endlessly. Martin who “picked up Malcolm’s burden,” and walked with it as though it was a feather.
He titled the writing Remember this House, but never got past the thirty pages. The documentary is based on those pages, and each words uttered are from Baldwin, narrated by acclaimed actor Samuel L. Jackson.
The word juxtaposed, often times, with modern day pictures, of Black Lives Matter protests, arrests, and humiliation on the streets, violence and the loss of lives. That’s what makes it more aching, every image a lump on the throat that cannot be swallowed.
The documentary chronicled in four sections.
Paying my Dues
Of which more than anything I made out Baldwin as a ‘witness’. A witness who lives both in the inside, in the deepest soul of the Black American community and in the outside, a writer filling pages with stories so that he and the Black community finds some forms of closures and ‘they’ never dared to forget what they did.
Baldwin says they know the Whites more than they know themselves. Because the white oppressors didn’t look them in the eye, they didn’t really face what they did, but lynched, or beaten on the streets, lying, the Black people did. The Black people did look them in the eyes and knew that the Whites knew what they are doing, how terribly gruesome and wrong it is.
Baldwin had lived mainly in Paris since he was twenty four. He desperately wanted to flee the constant terror that followed him in his native land. And being an openly Homosexual man made the situation much worse. He said going to Paris brought him good enough peace to start writing his books, where he did not have to constantly look over his shoulders.
The FBI took notice Of Baldwin, a brilliant, an eloquent, black man, and constantly kept him under investigations. When just being gay was enough to tip them off.
But he came back often enough. To pay due, to the culture that in his language, “produced me, nourished me, and paid for me.”
James Baldwin was not a Black Muslim, not a member of Black Panther, nor did he was in any Christian congregation, he was not a member of the NAACP. Being in the North, the black class distinction in NAACP he couldn’t cope with and he says “ which repelled a shoe-shine boy like me”. Rather he knew as a witness he needs “to move as largely, and as freely as possible”. And that’s what he did.
Baldwin speaks of the movies, of Hollywood. Heroes were white. In whatever capacity the Black actors would get cast their “comic bug eyed terror” was unsettling. The movies “made legend out of a massacre.” The stories were there to constantly reassure the white population they had a justification for doing what they did. Be it the Native Americans or the slave trade, in the movies, the white heroes would conquer and save the day and be the bearer of light and civilization. The black characters were the caricatures just to entertain the white people. Meek and robbed off their sexuality. Even actors like Sidney Potier or Harry Belafonte couldn’t be sex symbols, after all you couldn’t intimidate the white audience.
James Baldwin, with those beautiful eyes of his, said in an interview, the Black man in America is “free only to battle, never free to rest.” And the tiredness and exhaustion was unuttered yet the air was heavy with it.
When Baldwin says “how are you going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking cruel white majority”, or the world is in this situation because of the “the role of a guilty and constricted white imagination,” I know what he means.
The thing is I am not going to say that you need to be in somewhat capacity to be marginalized or oppressed to understand what oppression and discrimination in another country, in another form feels like, that you need that- to be heartbreakingly sad. Nor I am saying that my experience of living in Bangladesh in a middle class family in a heavily patriarchal culture is comparable to the Black American experiences, but all I am saying is that my anguish, frustration, rage, hopelessness, and sometimes numbness find words reading Baldwin. In whatever capacity, I know the feeling of not being able to walk freely in your own streets, in busses, in parks.
So when I cried the whole time watching I Am Not Your Negro, I know what I was feeling because of the immense pain and loss of life and the degradations, the fight for dignity, with the slogans I CAN’T BREATH of the Black Americans, some of my own ache found a way out there too. That in that cry the suffocation of living in my country, my streets and homes got mixed too.
And In the end I can’t help but utter James Baldwin.
“The story of Negro in America, is the story of America.”
Long live the voices who speak up in the times of darkness.