I Am Not Your Negro

Review by Eric L.

The title itself should take you back to a time and parlance that we, as a country of “free” citizens, should have moved past long ago. Sadly, we have not. 

I am Not Your Negro is a great introduction to James Baldwin. Filmmaker Raoul Peck worked on the project for nearly a decade (a recent article by Peck in The Atlantic entitled James Baldwin Was Right All Along is a great primer). The film offers a potent collage of civil rights era footage, recent Black Lives Matter protests, interviews, and debates that feature Baldwin speaking (captivating), as well as the narration of excerpts from an incomplete manuscript read by actor Samuel L. Jackson, tentatively entitled Remember This House.  

The 1979 manuscript concerns Baldwin’s reluctant return to America after a long sojourn in France. The nonfiction piece, a pensive essay on racism in America, details his relationship with, and observations of, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Baldwin refers to himself as a “witness” of these three titans of the civil rights movement, all murdered before the age of 40. Baldwin explicitly states that he’s not missing his native land; the impetus for his return seems out of a sense of guilt that America’s serious racial divide is an abstraction to him while living abroad.  

Baldwin succinctly states that “segregation equals apathy and ignorance,” as they are forces very difficult to overcome. His assessment of Americans’ sense of reality and the reasons for it should give us all something to contemplate. I love good writing, and Baldwin’s prose is beautiful. I believe this is why some have compared his essays to those of George Orwell (I encourage you to read his essays, too. I’m a huge fan). I would describe both as moral or political artists, and perhaps I appreciate their contemplative tone.

As a side note, Baldwin’s fictional  Another Country, included in PBS’s the Great American Read, made for a great discussion in my book group. The narrative deftly examines race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, power, and anger. The nonfiction title The Fire Next Time is comprised of two essays, one a letter Baldwin wrote to his nephew. I find them both beautifully written and compelling.  

Perhaps it’s a positive sign that the aforementioned materials are currently in high demand and hard to borrow, both in print and digitally, so just start by streaming the film on Kanopy. It is well worth your time! 

It some ways it seems odd that someone like me is writing this piece. If you met me you’d quickly realize that I’m close to the apex of privilege in America for a variety of reasons. I’m well aware of this fact, though I wasn’t always. I’d proffer that sometimes single words such as “privilege” become overused, politicized, and more importantly, lose their intent. This is precisely why we should all contemplate our world, and art is an engaging way to do so. 

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at the Elkridge branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.