I Am Not Your Negro —James Baldwin’s Challenging Critique Of Race Relations In America

Black History Month: James Baldwin Quotes

“Selma to Montgomery” by Peter Pettus. Library of Congress. Public Domain

“I was to discover that the line which separates a witness from an actor is a very thin line indeed. Nevertheless, the line is real.” — James Baldwin

I just finished watching the documentary I Am Not Your Negro by filmmaker Raoul Peck. The film is an attempt to envision a project James Baldwin had begun working on in 1979 called “Remember This House.” It was to be a personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. To say the film is exceptional is an understatement.

Born in Harlem Hospital in 1924, James Baldwin eventually moved to France in his mid-twenties, but continued to remain part of the American experience. The film is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, but the words are all James Baldwin, from letters and writings. It is a powerful statement and ought to be on your short list of must see films.

I chose the statement at the beginning here to open this post because it speaks to all of us, but especially writers, artists and journalists. Am I just acting a role, or am I bearing witness to truth?

“I had to accept as time wore on that part of my responsibility as a witness was to move as largely and freely as possible. To write the story and to get it out.”
— James Baldwin

To some extent I heard these words as a challenge to me personally. What is the story I must write, must tell, must “get out.”

“I am terrified of the moral apathy in this country.” — James Baldwin

As this statement was narrated on the film, the images were of happy white people, parades, the smiling faces of the masses oblivious to the suffering and injustice taking place simultaneously in their country and often in their own neighborhoods.

“People cannot bear too much reality.”

Psychologists have long observed that there is a real-ideal split in the way we see ourselves and our world. When the truth hurts, we shield our minds by means of illusions or distractions.

The suffering caused by racist policies in the Deep South continued far longer than it ought to have, but the advent of television brought to light the brutality and almost bizarre degree of anti-black fervor that had been taking place there for ages.

“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story. What can we do?” — James Baldwin

True. Nor is the story of the Native American in America. If you’ve not read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, add it to your reading list. These heart-breaking stories are essential if we are to full comprehend who we are as a people.

Here are a few more thought-provoking quotes to perhaps move you to take an interest in watching this documentary and/or becoming more familiar with the writings of a sensitive and profound social observer.

“You don’t need numbers. You need passion. The sad part is that most people who say they care don’t really care. What they care about is their safety and their profits.” — James Baldwin

“The sad things is that the American way of life has failed to make people happier or better. We do not want to admit this.” — James Baldwin

“You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettoes without becoming something monstrous yourselves.” — James Baldwin

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” — James Baldwin

“I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.” — James Baldwin

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” — James Baldwin

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

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