On Stage: James Baldwin’s unfinished book is America’s unfinished business

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

When you overhear someone talking about the “race problem” in America, what comes to mind? Well-dressed white families smiling perfectly for a photographer? Happy-go-lucky and healthy white teens running over summer grass? Wait! I know… Doris Day! Anxiously opening a bottle of champagne for a date in her modern, state-of-the-art kitchen.

It’s hard to imagine that such buoyant images connect to a problem that includes riots, beatings, swastikas, violence, prison cells, urban decay, guns, lynchings, angry mobs, police brutality, racial profiling, and all the other ugly, troubling signs that race is and always has been an aggrieved matter in the USA. And yet, they do, according to director Raul Peck’s new documentary about James Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro.”

When he died of stomach cancer in 1987, Baldwin left behind just 30 pages of his final book, which was to be titled “Remember This House.” The book was meant to follow the lives and assassinations of his friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. “The story of the American Negro is the story of America,” Baldwin wrote there. “I Am Not Your Negro” tells a story worth listening to.

I’m old enough to remember when Baldwin was a professor at UMass-Amherst, though not old enough to have taken classes with him. He became a Professor of Literature and African-American Studies at the Five College Network in 1983 and remained nearly until his death.

People I knew who had studied with him spoke of him in awed tones, which I assumed was due to his near-legendary status as an author and activist.

In my early 20s, on a quest to read “everything that mattered,” I read his “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Giovanni’s Room.” Unfortunately, I retain little from that youthful reading frenzy, and so I was unprepared for the incredible insight and foresight Baldwin offers in this film. Watching, I wondered if the awe my old friends had for him was in fact due to their knowledge that here before them was a person with an extraordinary understanding, unusually clear perception of things as they are.

Baldwin’s assessment of race relations in America is remarkably prescient, his points controversial into our present day despite the Civil Rights movement, despite Barack Obama and so many other signs we might cling to for hope that a new day of equality has dawned.

Images of 1958 flicker beside images from 2008, and one of Baldwin’s lines echoes with polyvalent intensity: History is not the past but the present.

History is not the past but the present because — as so much of the movie shows — being black in America was painful and dangerous in the 1950s and it remains so today in 2017. It’s not as though nothing has changed — certainly much has — but black mothers today worry for their children in ways that white mothers don’t.

If this were a conversation instead of a column, I might expect to be interrupted at this point. All mothers worry for their children, someone might point out. And that is true. So many families in America, white and black, struggle today, and that is also true. However, that is beside this particular point. White mothers do not worry that if their children are dressed wrong, or say the wrong thing, or are simply unlucky, they could get shot by the police. White mothers do not worry their children will get killed for being white.

That doesn’t happen very often, someone might say and that the media makes too much of it when it does happen.

By now, in this hypothetical conversation, I’m wondering why so many white people feel the need to explain such things. To point out that they are also oppressed, to hold the Obamas up as evidence that African-Americans are doing all right, better than all right. To insist that slavery is dead and gone without a trace of residue.

Cue Doris Day, pretty and chaste, the picture of American innocence. White people of today are not to blame for the race problem in America. We had nothing to do with slavery. We never lynched anyone. We are innocent. Our fictions tell this story again and again, and our reality is structured in such a way that we don’t have to witness or experience the injustice done to African-Americans. White people have the privilege of never knowing — really feeling and understanding on the level of everyday existence — what it’s like to be black.

And furthermore, we don’t try to imagine. Maybe we’re exasperated that black people are “still resentful.” Maybe we don’t want for racism to be real and don’t want to be racists, and so we silence the voices that try to explain their lived experience of racism in America.

Some of those voices cannot be silenced, however. Baldwin’s, for example, is reasonable, modulated, resonant, and sure: History is not just the past but the present.

In truth, we should welcome that message. If history is not just the past but the present, we can change it. This is the genius of “I Am Not Your Negro.” It offers a solution that we can seize and use.

The solution to the race problem in America begins with listening, really listening to what Black Americans say about their experience, which they are, after all, the authority on. Black people, Black stories, Black literature, Black movies, Black TV shows — African-Americans can only be integrated into mainstream culture if we commit ourselves to hear what they’re saying instead of drowning their voices with claims of innocence and sighs of exasperation.

“I am not a n***er; I am a man,” Baldwin tells Dick Cavett in the movie. “But if you call me a n***er, you must need it. That’s what white people need to figure out, why they need it. The future of the country depends on that.”

“I Am Not Your Negro” is now playing at Amherst Cinema. For tickets and more information see http://amherstcinema.org.

Jenny Abeles is a writer and educator living in Greenfield. You can search her work online by including her middle name, Terpsichore.