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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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Wise Words of Du Bois

February 23, 2018


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

Since Du Bois began each chapter of The Souls of Black Folk with a hymn or song, it may also be appropriate to preface this post with Mahalia Jackson's “How I Got Over”.

As we approach the end of Black History Month, it is worth our time to investigate the voice of W. E. B. Du Bois. He was a writer and activist as well as one of the founders of the NAACP. Born in 1868 in Massachusetts, Du Bois always found success in the classroom. After graduating as his high school's valedictorian, he attended Fisk University, Harvard and the University of Berlin. His introduction to southern life, while he attended Fisk University in Tennessee, served to open his eyes to the differences in black life between the north and south. His keen observation skills and cautious approach allowed Du Bois to understand and describe a complexity of issues affecting this split. He eloquently explains some of the reasons for the differences in his book The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. The quotations below, taken from that text, demonstrate his keen observations, talented writing skills and desire for equality. Texts like this helped to explain the black experience to those who grew up white, with privilege or in other countries. In other words, these chapters identified problems that weaken and destroy society. Though they relate to slavery and its effects, he applies his keen observation to a society in the midst of any deep divide. His ability to translate such complex narratives led to understanding, civil discourse and progress. Many thanks to W. E. B. Du Bois for the eloquence and vision of these words.

All citations that follow are taken from his 1903 text: The Souls of Black Folk.

“So wofully unorganized is sociological knowledge that the meaning of progress, the meaning of 'swift' and 'slow' in human doing, and the limits of human perfectability, are veiled, unanswered sphinxes on the shores of science. Why should Aeschylus have sung two thousand years before Shakespeare was born?”

“And herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, - all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, - who is good? Not that men are ignorant, - what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.”

“The white man, as well as the Negro, is bound and barred by the color-line, and many a scheme of friendliness between the two has dropped still-born because some busybody has forced the color-question to the front and brought the tremendous force of unwritten law against the innovators.... It is not enough for the Negroes to declare that color-prejudice is the sole cause of their social condition, nor for the white South to reply that their social condition is the main cause of prejudice. They both act as reciprocal cause and effect, and a change in neither alone will bring the desired effect. Both must change, or neither can improve to any great extent.”

“I freely acknowledge that it is possible, and sometimes best, that a partially undeveloped people should be ruled by the best of their stronger and better neighbors for their own good, until such time as they can start and fight the world's battles alone. I have already pointed out how sorely in need of such economic and spiritual guidance the emancipated Negro was, and I am quite willing to admit that if the representatives of the best white Southern public opinion were the ruling and guiding power in the South to-day the conditions indicated would be fairly well fulfilled. But the point I have insisted upon, and now emphasize it again, is that the best opinion of the South to-day is not the ruling opinion. That to leave the Negro helpless and without a ballot to-day is to leave him, not to the guidance of the best, but rather to the exploitation and debauchment of the worst; that this is no truer of the South than of the North, - of the North than of Europe: in any land, in any country under modern free competition, to lay any class of weak and despised people, be they white, black, or blue, at the political mercy of their stronger, richer, and more resourceful fellows, is a temptation which human nature seldom has withstood and seldom will withstand.”

“It is, then, the strife of all honorable men of the twentieth century to see that in the future competition of races the survival of the fittest shall mean the triumph of the good, the beautiful, and the true; that we may be able to preserve for future civilization all that is really fine and noble and strong, and not continue to put a premium on greed and impudence and cruelty.”

“The function of the university is not simply to teach breadwinning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.... Patience, Humility, Manners and Taste, common schools and kindergartens, industrial and technical schools, literature and tolerance, - all these spring from knowledge and culture, the children of the university. So must men and nations build, not otherwise, not upside down.”

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From Hughes to Angelou

February 19, 2016

 

“There is the nobleness of the human spirit...despite it all...
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave
I am the hope and the dream of the slave.” Maya Angelou, “And Still I Rise

 

In 1926, Langston Hughes published a short essay in The Nation titled, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”. In this essay, he gives advice to aspiring African American writers, artists, actors and singers. Everyone may carry some form of creativity within themselves, but the trick that Hughes uncovers in his essay is that an unconscious understanding of virtue and beauty may be layered over our own internal understanding. We may interpret beauty through a cultural understanding that has been taught, rather than our own. And not seeing self-worth can cause an individual to despise themselves. Hughes writes, “And so the word white comes to be unconsciously a symbol of all the virtues. It holds for the children beauty, morality, and money. The whisper of 'I want to be white' runs silently through their minds. This young poet's home is, I believe, a fairly typical home of the colored middle class. One sees immediately how difficult it would be for an artist born in such a home to interest himself in interpreting the beauty of his own people.” Instead of asking the critics to change their understanding of beauty, Hughes asks the future creatives to begin by constructing their world in a way that will explain their perspective. How else can we, as a whole society, understand beauty? He wants his own community to understand that they already are beautiful. That they already are artists. But his message is both difficult and powerful: he asks his own families, communities, neighbors and artists to honestly assess themselves. He continues, “[I]t is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering 'I want to be white,' hidden in the aspirations of his people, to 'Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro – and beautiful!'”

 

Maya Angelou, born just two years after the publication of Hughes' essay, seems to inherently know that she is beautiful. From her biography to her books, she shouts confidence and pride. Angelou wrote, performed and dreamed from within. Angelou had the audacity to claim something beautiful inside of herself, and by doing so, she linked many voices and communities together. Hughes writes, “We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.” And Angelou wrote about both the ugliness and beauty. She rose up out of her own ugly truth, proud, strong, and resilient. Angelou, an African American female, described the human spirit through the darkness and light of her own story. She described the world from her perspective, paired beauty with grace and audaciously, unapologetically described the ugliness too. She says, “Everybody born comes from the Creator trailing wisps of glory.” Wisps of glory. And some paint the heavens.

 

Fast forward nearly one hundred years, and Hughes' words still resonate. Beauty generated from within is true and honest and should be communicated. He writes, “An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.” From I know Why the Caged Bird Sings to “Harlem Hopscotch”, Angelou proves that she has accepted Hughes' appeal. Perhaps he would applaud the progress, and still always hope for more: more voices, more beauty, more truth. Hughes concludes his essay with an impassioned plea, appropriate for any peoples and any age: “We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”

 

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