I Am Not Your Negro is a documentary directed by Raoul Peck based on texts by James Baldwin. The movie contained powerful imagery and footage of Baldwin and was narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. My family and I were changed by this film. The book is the written “script” (for lack of a better description) of the movie. The book (and the movie) contains excerpts from Baldwin’s essays, interviews, and personal letters. I wanted to read the book because although the movie was visually thought-provoking, I needed to mull over his writings and his words.
James Baldwin envisioned writing a book entitled Remember This House to tell the story of this three murdered friends; Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. He was able to write only 30-pages of notes prior to his death. The notes had never been published. Raoul Peck honors his vision in I Am Not Your Negro.
As mentioned earlier, this is a documentary film. I am reviewing the book, but also the movie. Each have a very valuable place. The documentary uses actual footage and interviews. But the book allows you to reread and meditate on his words. For purposes of this blog post I will refer to the “book”, but “film” is understood and interchangeable.
The book is not arranged chronologically, rather it takes readers on journey through Baldwin’s mindset regarding the lives and deaths of his friends and history of race in the United States. It documents, in Baldwin’s own words, where he was when he found out about the assassination of first, Medgar Evers; then, Malcolm X; and finally, Martin Luther King Jr. His writings are pieced together to show a complete portrait of the lives of African-Americans during this time in history.
He offers his frank assessment on the issues of the time including the integration of schools, African-Americans in Hollywood, politics, and police brutality.
A few of my favorite quotes used in this book:
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“In America, I was free only in battle, never free to rest-and he who finds no way to rest cannot long survive the battle…. And a young, white revolutionary remains, in general, far more romantic than a black one.”
I Am Not Your Negro is an amazing collection of work from James Baldwin. Raoul Peck honored him and his legacy in this film. I highly recommend watching the documentary and reading the book.