I will be honest, I didn’t know much about James Baldwin before I saw the film I Am Not Your Negro. Afterwards I felt I knew a lot about Baldwin, and a lot about many other things too.
I went because I’m a black woman living in east London who has just got involved in a number of anti-racist campaigns.
There are lots of us discovering or rediscovering black history at the moment. If you’re one of them, go and see this film now.
In the 1970s Baldwin was writing a book about the lives—and violent deaths—of three black men.
They were Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers—the Civil Rights activist murdered by a member of the White Citizens’ Council in 1963.
All the voice-over in the film, narrated by Samuel L Jackson, is taken from the work Baldwin was doing for that book—which he unfortunately never completed.
There are also news reports, clips from films, photographs and pictures which add up to a crash-course history of racism in the US to the present day.
It also shows the resistance to that racism, and the heroes who took part in it.
There’s a great section where Baldwin is speaking to Cambridge university students in Britain.
You can see him straining to get his message across, and his slight sense of surprise when they give him a standing ovation.
Baldwin was writing over 30 years ago. But as the parts of the film on Black Lives Matter show, not much has changed in terms of the essentials.
Baldwin is so quick-witted and clever in his demolition of racism that it is a joy to watch and listen to his speeches.
But he also makes you angry that black people have to fight so hard.
One criticism is that I heard only one passing reference to the fact that Baldwin was gay. It was an important part of his life, so why is it not explored?
But don’t let that put you off for a moment from going to see this film.
“I can’t be a pessimist, because I am alive,” says Baldwin. Amen to that.
A unique fighter against oppression
James Baldwin had a unique ability to voice the frustrations of the oppressed. His writings shaped the struggle for Civil Rights and were shaped by it.
Born in 1924, Baldwin grew up in the New York ghetto of Harlem. Far from the segregated southern states and a century after the end of slavery, black people were still penned in by poverty and police violence.
In essays and stories he described how racism distorted people’s lives and crushed their self-esteem.
Children learned to hear fear in their parents’ voices when they strayed into danger.
Adolescents doomed to lives of unemployment or drudgery turned from school to crime, drugs or the army.
Baldwin had no time for the “innocence” of white liberals who bemoaned this misery as if it had nothing to do with their society.
Their hopes for black people to “integrate” or become “accepted” were not about recognising them as equals.
“The only thing white people have that black people need, or should ever want, is power,” he argued in his most famous book The Fire Next Time. “And no one holds power forever”.
The book’s title was a warning, taken from a slave song reimagining god’s promise in the Bible after the Great Flood—“No more water, the fire next time.”
In other words, if the US didn’t solve its “Negro problem” it was headed for disaster—a theme Baldwin revisited frequently.
He escaped the hopelessness of Harlem by heading to Europe. In Paris he met other US exiles as well as European and African intellectuals.
It was the era of decolonisation. Baldwin engaged critically in debates about developing a black or African culture to throw off the legacy of white and European domination.
Being away from the US made him interrogate what it was to be American.
Baldwin went back to the US to join the growing movement against segregation in the South.
In 1957 he conducted interviews in Charlotte, North Carolina, where a handful of black children were braving vicious abuse to go to previously segregated white schools.
He asked a boy what life in such a hostile school was doing to him. Baldwin wrote, “‘It’s hard enough,’ the boy said later, still in control but with flashing eyes, ‘to keep quiet and keep walking when they call you nigger.
“‘But if anybody ever spits on me I know I’ll have to fight.’”
Baldwin toured the South in 1963 giving lectures for the Congress of Racial Equality, and joined the March on Washington later that year.
He was part of Martin Luther King’s long march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital Montgomery in 1965.
For the media, Baldwin became a face of the movement to a degree. But his writings were never simply social commentaries or political manifestos.
They explore the individual’s search for self-expression and identity, and how that search clashes with a repressive society. They encompass themes such as love and sex or religion and spirituality.
For example, the Christian belief that the world is the creation of a just god suggested for Baldwin that black people deserve their oppression. It reflects and reinforces a contempt that racism instills in black people for themselves and each other.
The Nation of Islam inverted this, arguing that god was black and would deliver his people from the “white devils”.
Though he rejected its conclusions, Baldwin understood how the Nation won a wide audience by speaking the truth of how it felt to be black in the US.
His second novel, Giovanni’s Room, was a rare celebration of gay love long before the gay liberation movement.
Baldwin’s homosexuality initially brought contempt and suspicion even inside the movement.
King considered it a mental illness, while leading Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver saw evidence of a “self-hating” black man. But later as the Panthers radicalised, leaders such as Huey Newton would argue for supporting the struggles of all oppressed groups.
Baldwin described the highly sexualised demonisation of black men as “walking phallic symbols”.
His writings scrutinised the mindset behind racism. He was uncompromisingly hostile to “white society” yet sympathetic to the white individuals who were trapped in it.
Even white cops were forced to grow a thick skin of contempt and callousness for the people they policed.
White workers had more to gain from overthrowing the racism that was “crucial to the system to keep blacks and whites at a division so both were and are a source of cheap labour.”
Baldwin’s views were in stark contrast to those of separatists who called for black people to develop a distinct black economy and ultimately a separate black state.
He saw black people as inseparable from US society, and their liberation as inseparable from the transformation of that society as a whole.
This meant the Civil Rights movement was about “nothing less than the liberation of the entire country”.
It was of “utmost importance” for white people to recognise black people as human because “white people will not, otherwise, be able to see themselves as they are”.
Though Baldwin’s insights into the psychology of oppression gave his writing immense power, defeating oppression also requires a deeper analysis of what drives society.
And Baldwin was suspicious of the left, seeing in all “professional revolutionaries” the cynicism of Stalinism. Yet his writings point towards a socialist solution.
Baldwin himself said, “I don’t see any other way for it to go.”
And, he added, “the price of any real socialism here is the eradication of what we call the race problem.”