By Dr. Edson Burton
I want to start with a spoiler but one, which I hope will enhance rather than ruin your viewing. The title of the Raoul Peck’s documentary is a softened version of a question raised by African American author James Baldwin upon who’s unfinished work this film is based.
The question the White population of this country has to ask itself is why was it necessary to have a nigger in the first place? But I’m not a nigger I am a man? But if you think I’m a nigger that means you need him and you have to find out why?
The question is posed in the final third of this searing examination of race in the USA. Having pushed through the permutations of racism in the USA the question attains a climatic power found in the best works of fiction.
‘Negro’, ‘coloured’, ‘Black, ‘African American’ these terms have been the accepted parlance among Whites and Blacks. ‘Nigger’ was the coarse, constant, counterpart to these terms. Nigger opened the door to a more brutal relationship, a more brutal reality which has been the subtext to race relations in America and Europe.
Peck’s impeccable visual choices provide layer upon layer of our understanding of the term. At ‘worst’ Nigger is criminal, licentious, and deceitful, at best lazy, deceitful, cretinous, impotent and servile – the antithesis of all that is good, pure, virtuous White. ‘The Nigger is a dread figure an entity that exists only in his [White society’s] mind.’
Baldwin’s extraordinary understanding of Black America lies at the heart of the documentary. His unfinished essay ‘Remember this House’ is structured around his profound connection to the civil rights leaders Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. But beyond the great and good his work explores the lives of the preachers, the hustlers, the junkies, the intellectuals, the lovers. He knew the high and low places, the celebrities, the hustlers the civil rights leaders, the intellectuals.
His fury is directed against White ignorance of this rich and varied world. As he surmised Black Americans were intimately aware of white realities – after all survival depends on being highly sensitive to the whims of one’s oppressor – the same could not be said in reverse. ‘I know more about you than you know about me.’ This ignorance was the child of segregation. To Baldwin ignorance and apathy were more perniciously pervasive in American society than hate. In the absence of knowledge the Black person become an object of fear and dread. But moreover this object this entity was an essential building block to a ‘euphoric’ construction of Whiteness. A Whiteness which however infantalized those who believed in it.
Baldwin, voiced unrecognisably, by Samuel Jackson, speaks in broad strokes – ‘White’, ‘White America.’ Subsuming all Whites within such broad strokes risks his dismissal as a wounded victim of racism with no great insight. But Baldwin the essayist must be experienced alongside his fictional works. His novels such as Another Country, Giovanni’s Room, and short stories transcend race. They ooze a compassion for White and Black subjects, for men and women. While he had wished for the sake of ease, to be a racist, his formative experiences barred the door to that particular sanctuary. Peck incorporates Baldwin’s TV interview to give us an insight to Baldwin.
Baldwin defends his use of race as a primary marker of social reality as empirically drawn from lived experience. As stated in the film he does not know what every White person thinks or feels about the Negro but ‘we can conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions.’ The evidence writ large in schools, housing, policing suggest that White society is comfortable with Black marginalization. Comfortable as it confirms the mythology of the ‘Nigger.’
Baldwin’s is part of the canon of American writing. His work is poured over by scholars, post and undergraduates, discovered by niche activists groups, the self educators and literary circles. But Peck does not excavate Baldwin for the sake of nostalgia but to force us to see his contemporary relevance. I Am Not your Negro restores Baldwin to a vitality he enjoyed in life. His voice is once more that of the writer intellectual, sage orator who cuts through the social smog. Peck’s flawless reaches into and beyond the meaning which Baldwin articulates in words. Peck not only offers the visual narratives and answers to Baldwin’s rhetoric he supplies the continuity with current discourses through powerful juxtaposition. We are in short treated to a dialogue between film maker and writer that gives rise to a new bolder, complete work.
Baldwin did not write for his time but for those generations to come which he knew would still be grappling with this problem and it is a testament to Peck that he has visualised the prescience in Baldwin’s work. It is therefore entirely apt that we consider the LA riots, the Black Lives Matter campaign both sparked by police brutality that had been legitimised by a White judicial system that failed to supply redress.
With the passing of Obama’s presidency ‘I am Not Your Negro’ becomes all the more urgent. Donald Trump is not an extraordinary figure ‘bully’ ‘manboy’ ‘buffon’ ‘narcissist’ the list of descriptors for this most egregious character are almost endless. What is more alarming is why would millions vote in his favour.
Sympathetic narratives towards displaced Whites have silenced the reality that many African Americans feel – Trump’s victory cannot be explained without reference to race. Loss and greatness remain the watchwords of Trump’s strangely ongoing campaign but who’s loss? Who’s greatness will be recovered? It is clear from those who are now to be subdued that this White President for a White masculinist America feels mandated to protect a supposedly threatened White privilege. To borrow the lens used by Peck and Baldwin the new president and his supporters are united in an attempt to roll back the civil rights gains that opened the flood gates to the Women’s Movement, the Gay Right movement’ and return to psychic infancy with all the ugly ignorance that entails. I am Not Your Negro cuts to the chase when political language dog whistles and the press are hesitant if not obsequious.
This is not a safely American (his)story documentary. While the documentary notes the freedoms which Baldwin enjoyed in Europe the line ‘the West has no moral authority’ shows writer and film maker are under no illusions.
The ‘Nigger’ is an invention of the ‘Euro-American imagination’ exported, refined, and re-exported much like the traded goods which gave birth to the trope of the Nigger in the first place. Post slavery we have been even more circumspect in describing racism in Britain preferring the more genteel ‘colour-bar’ to legalized segregation. This partly in order to preserve our good standing in the world’ – the counterpart rhetoric to America as the land of the free. But beneath this semantic dance are realities as stark as that which occurred on US soil.
The atrocities of slavery and Empire are too varied to be recounted in this short piece moreover they have the safety of distance and time.
But the trope of the ‘Nigger’ lies behind the troubled history of race inside Britain’s borders. Fears of interracial relationships propelled the 1919 race riots in Liverpool and Cardiff and years later in the 1958 Nottinghill. In the wake of the latter racism swept into mainstream political discourse most crudely in the 1964 ‘Do you want a Nigger for a Neighbour campaign’ in Smethwick Birmingham.
The Sun newspapers hyper reporting of sexual crimes, street robbery, and scroungers during the 1970s & 80s reproduced the trope in bold.
Today of course we are reassured that Brexit has nothing to do with immigration. But on the morning after the debate the discussion hinged on controlling our ‘borders.’ But for who’s sake and who should be kept out. Visual language during this campaign was explicit. The spike in racist attacks suggest that this was not confined to the so called ‘new communities.’ Black and Asian second and third generation migrants experienced a new question mark over their right to claim belonging. Our discourse creates new ‘Niggers’ that share the traits but not the colour of the original trope.
But moral panics and legislative moments are flashpoints played out against a general acceptance of racial inequality that mirrors that which is found in Baldwin’s America. Arguably we manage inequality rather than truly attempt to transform the conditions upon which it is built. To accept such an unequal society raises the question of whether we take seriously our commitment to diversity, multiculturalism, or meritocracy. The words of Baldwin return to haunt us ‘ I know what you think from the state of your institutions.’
One might be tempted to avoid such a visceral portrait of racism at a time which is already bleak. But this is to miss an essential albeit understated aspect of the film. Baldwin is an optimist: ‘I still believe we can do something with this country that has never been done before.’
To do so we may first have to be rid of ‘Niggers.’
N.B. Quotes are from the I Am Not Your Negro.
Dr Edson Burton is a writer, & historian who’s broad interest in Black History, Literature and Culture is united by his commitment to challenge and to reimagine Black experience. Edson solidified his long standing relationship with the Watershed in 2014 when he curated last year’s highly successful Afrofuturism season. His personal focus as part of the Come the Revolution Collective is on Black sexuality with a particular emphasis on performative sexualities. Edson’s work overlaps with his role as a project coordinator at the Trinity Arts Centre.