Tonight I finally saw a movie I have been wanting to see: I am Not Your Negro, based on writing by James Baldwin. He had set out to write about the murders of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers. This film has no writing other than a short, unpublished manuscript Baldwin wrote, but the director powerfully wove together film clips, music, photographs and documentary footage from the past and present to bring the writing into new dimensions. I loved how he drew in the reader with small moments but managed to speak to incredible truths.
James Baldwin is one of my favorite authors. I first read The Fire Next Time when I started doing a lot of antiracist organizing, shortly after college. I remember being thrilled to hear ideas woven together in a way that truly breathed fire into my being. It was probably THE piece of writing that pushed me inextricably into the thread of lifelong commitment to be a change agent.
Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. – Baldwin
I watched the footage of police brutality, lynchings, Indian genocide, and racist images of Black people, juxtaposed with 1950s-60s commercials and films of the suburban white dream. The cry whispered into a soft moan in my throat. My family, my community, bears this invisible heritage without seeing past the walls that so neatly divide us. We have learned, over and over, that some people are inferior. Now we have added immigrants and Muslims to the list.
You don’t know what’s happening on the other side of the wall, because you don’t want to know.
After the movie, my partner and I walked down to an Ethiopian restaurant. As we processed the movie, we drifted into a disagreement about capitalism. I’m trying to notice when I get attached to being right, and without fail, I usually go there when I am passionate about something. My declaration, “You’re deluded,” preceded me searching online for some justification. As I googled “James Baldwin on capitalism” I realized what I was doing. I sank into the deep cushioned chair and let my eyes drift to the floor. There were two women at a neighboring table, and I thought I heard one of them talking about a gag reflex. I thought about the challenge Baldwin poses, to look at the seeds in our hearts as white people that led to needing to have someone be our (n-word) in the first place. It took a few minutes and a bathroom break for me to apologize. Seeing the small ways violence is embedded in my habits allows me to see how I’m connected to others who seem to cause even more harm. We carry our history with us but have choices.
Thank you, James Baldwin, for your belief in our ability to change and for the depth of your love that compelled you to publicly witness this country’s suffering.