A Hidden Figure: James Baldwin

When I have trouble processing things, whether my own emotions or something that is happening in society, I always turn to art. Artists, from painters and writers to dancers and singers, have always been a source of comfort for people in times of trouble. It is especially common in the African American community.

I think of all the great artists of the 50s, 60s, and 70s and their protest music when I see everything that is happening today. Nina Simone said, “You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”

James Baldwin with Nina Simone, early 1960s
Nina Simone and James Baldwin (source)

James Baldwin was everything I wish to be as an artist. He was a novelist, an essayist, poet, and social critic. In director Raoul Peck’s documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, the story being told is narrated and inspired from an unfinished manuscript from Baldwin, titled Remember This House, which was given to him by Baldwin’s sister, Gloria Karefa-Smart. It was a personal account of the memories of Baldwin’s friends and civil-rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—all of whom were assassinated before they reached the age of 40.

Though much of the information given throughout the documentary is stuff I had been familiar with, I believe it is beneficial for people to watch, mainly white people and those who have no idea about James Baldwin. I knew who he was from videos I saw online and the few times I’ve read things he’s written. But, his books were never required reading in school. I am mostly disappointed when I mention his name and people have no idea who he is, a negative reflection of the American school system.

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Recommended reading

I watched the Oscar nominated documentary twice and though I haven’t had a lot of time to fully digest everything that has been happening in America (and probably never will) but this film sparked some inspiration in me.While watching the film, I learned that Baldwin had moved to France at a young age to escape the horrible conditions he was living in his home. Baldwin had felt guilty for not being there with his people, especially when he saw the photos of young black kids trying to go to school, dealing with the hate of the anti-integration mobs that surrounded them. Images of black women and men being beat by cops and fighting for their rights were used to juxtaposed images from today.

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Like many black people in America, I was not born with black history and cultural imbedded in my mind. Shit, I didn’t grow up with my black family. And though I personally feel that this movie is made for those often ignorant to the history of race relation in America (white people), I truly believe that any black person just discovering Baldwin will walk away from this documentary with awareness of how white supremacy has and continues to be ingrained in American society.

Since the era of colonial slavery, black people have had to fight some form of oppression. When they were enslaved, they fought for their lives. Baldwin said, “White people have thought black people were meek, but they weren’t.” These black people were merely afraid for their lives.

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During the Jim Crow era, though freed from chains, black people faced rigid anti-black laws that essentially forced to live as subhuman citizens. And of course, we all know about the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s because we learn about some of it in school.

The generations following that time started looking at these issues as in the past. Learning about something that happened 50 or more years ago makes it seems like it has nothing to do with society today. And what we forget is that it has everything to do with today. And when it comes to Baldwin’s work, his words, the relevancy rings true regardless of if it’s 1966 or 2017.

The fact of the matter is, we can’t change our country’s history. No matter how much people deny and deflect, racism in America is rooted in white supremacy. Hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans and millions of Native Americans are dead because of the hate and ignorance and blatant disregard for humanity. White people try to reassure themselves that they’re good people by trying to disconnect themselves from the past and their ancestors, as if where they are now had nothing to do with it.

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In I am Not Your Negro, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson Baldwin said, “What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a “nigger” in the first place, because I am not a nigger, I’m a man.”

The documentary ends with this thought:

“If I’m not the nigger here and you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why,” Baldwin wrote. “And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it is able to ask that question.” What Baldwin is saying is white people in America need to ask themselves why their privilege exists. They need to challenge themselves and ask why there was a need or desire for slavery and colonialism. Only then will actual change be able to happen.

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