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Baldwin’s Unfinished Notes

February 22, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

James Baldwin was working on an unfinished manuscript when he died in 1987. Baldwin’s family recently gave this manuscript to filmmaker and activist Raoul Peck, who then turned it into a 2016 film entitled I Am Not Your Negro. While a text of the same name accompanies the film, it is worthwhile to seek out the film which includes a stunning array of archival footage. The book, too, includes some photographs, but nothing in comparison to the film itself. Baldwin’s notes deconstruct personal relationships, historical events, and popular films, making it impossible to simply read his notes. It is immensely helpful to see the images and places that Baldwin discusses. Truly, an image contains so much to analyze. In one section, Samuel L. Jackson narrates Baldwin’s discussion of the violence in Birmingham, while video images of Mars plays. This creates a strong image-to-text association, but also shows the great disparity between the barren world of Mars and the overheated passions of Birmingham. Baldwin writes: “White people are astounded by Birmingham,/ Black people aren’t./ White people are endlessly demanding to be/ reassured that Birmingham is really on Mars./ They don’t want to believe,/ still less to act on that belief,/ that what is happening in Birmingham/ is happening all over the country./ They don’t want to realize that there is not one step,/ morally or actually, between/ Birmingham and Los Angeles.” (34) The film also presents footage of Baldwin’s lectures and talk show appearances. Baldwin’s face speaks volumes. While the same is true of his written word, his presence enhances the documentary.

The notes that Peck received from Baldwin’s family were meant to draw parallels between three of Baldwin’s friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. These very different men were on the front lines of racial discussion and action. While the film gives some details and contains some footage of these men, I truly wish that Baldwin’s voice were able to tell us more about his relationships and interaction with them. There is so much left unsaid.

The film interlaces present day material with images from Baldwin’s life and from films and documentaries. In other words, Peck and Baldwin demonstrate the nation’s complexity. Baldwin’s focus on the arts helps to elaborate a number of points. He begins with questions of beauty, the notions of a young boy who saw equal beauty and likeness in Joan Crawford and a “colored woman, who, to me, looked exactly/ like Joan Crawford.” (25) Then, he moves into ways in which African Americans have been depicted onscreen, most of which played into stereotypes. Peck’s video montage offers a strong reminder of Baldwin’s voice through letters, lectures, analysis, and texts.

Below I have copied a few notes from the text which stood out to me. I recommend seeing the film in its entirety in order to better understand the discussion of race relations both past and present.

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“To watch the TV screen for any length of time/ is to learn some really frightening things/ about the American sense of reality.

“We are cruelly trapped between/ what we would like to be and what we actually are./ And we cannot possibly become/ what we would like to be until we are willing/ to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead/ on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame,/ and so ugly.

“These images are designed not to trouble,/ but to reassure./ They also weaken our ability to deal/ with the world as it is, ourselves as we are.” (86)

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“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.

“This is a formula for a nation’s or a kingdom’s/ decline, for no kingdom can maintain/ itself by force alone.

“Force does not work the way/ its advocates think in fact it does./ It does not, for example, reveal to the victim/ the strength of the adversary./ On the contrary, it reveals the weakness,/ even the panic of the adversary/ and this revelation invests the victim with patience.” (90-1)

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“History is not the past./ It is the present./ We carry our history with us./ We are our history./ If we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals.” (107)

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“Not everything that is faced can be changed;/ but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” (103)


Film: I Am Not Your Negro. Directed by Raoul Peck. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.

Text: Baldwin, James. I Am Not Your Negro. Edited by Raoul Peck, Penguin, 2016.


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