History is not in the past, but in the present

Photo Credit: Dan Budnik
Photo Credit: Dan Budnik

The documentary I Am Not Your Negro envisions what “Remember This House, the unfinished book by James Baldwin, may have looked like had it been completed. Using archival and recent footage, Hollywood films, photos, and Baldwin’s personal letters to his literary agent Jay Acton, the film offers the viewer a crash course in Baldwin’s extensive works regarding race relations in America.

After living abroad for almost 10 years, James returned to the United States during the peak of the civil rights movement. Already an accomplished novelist and poet, Baldwin began to expand on his works by writing and speaking extensively on the meaning of whiteness and blackness in American society. He identified that most people are cruelly trapped between what they want to be (a fantasy), and what they actually are (the reality). Unfortunately, when people fail to become what they want to be, instead of just being who they are, it creates the fallacy that an outside force is preventing them reaching their goals. In this case, the external force preventing individuals from achieving their goals is the so-called “Negro problem” – an imagined problem that prevents individuals from prospering.

Deftly narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, I Am Not Your Negro tells us something we should already know. We should already know that the “Negro problem” is rooted in an unwarranted fear of African Americans. We should already know that African-Americans, and other people of colour, are disproportionately mistreated and incarcerated at astronomical rates in comparison to their white counterparts. We should already know that racism is real, and a significant problem, and that it did not disappear because Barack Obama was the president of the United States. What director Raoul Peck artfully illuminates is that Baldwin’s words have fallen on deaf ears and, because of this, we are no further along than we were fifty years ago. Sure, we have made progress but it would be foolish to think racial tensions are not as prominent as they once were; we are just somewhat better at acknowledging it and taking actions to correct it.

An appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in 1968, stands out in terms of our refusal to acknowledge the existence and effects of racism. During the interview, Baldwin describes his lived experiences as a black man and discusses the issue of race in America in general. The guest following Baldwin is a philosopher named Paul Weiss. When Weiss sits down, Dick Cavett asks him what he thinks of Baldwin’s comments and Weiss replies that he disagrees with most of it, and only agrees with parts of it. What is frustrating about Weiss’s comments is that, as a white man – who can only understand the white experience, he states that he disagrees with Baldwin’s lived experiences as a black man and that society often exaggerates issues of race. It’s a privilege to only have to think about race and racism from a philosophical point of view, not from the position of someone who actually experiences it.

This type of disregard for an individual, or group’s, experiences constantly occurs, you see it all the time. Marginalised peoples are repeatedly told to “get over” what happened in the past because it is in the “past”, as though the ramifications of racism are not continuously felt by those affected. Near the end of the film, Baldwin astutely points out that “history is not in the past but in the present… we carry our history”. While it would be great if we could wish uncomfortable and complex issues away, that is not how it works. That’s not how any of this works. If it did, Baldwin’s words wouldn’t resonate so strongly in 2017 nor would his words need to be used as a roadmap to help people understand the issues still plaguing African Americans.