Since 1949, James Baldwin has been singing a song. It’s an old tune, at times tender, chiding, insistent, blaring, but always loving. It is, at its core, a bluesy refrain to the country that formed him, tormented him, his contemporaries, and his kin, and ultimately drove him from its shores.
We should be careful, however, not to assign to the author, playwright, and poet, who detested categories so ferociously, the hollow moniker of expat. The long tension between the person, James Baldwin, and the appellation often applied to his famous personage, provides much of the drama in Terrence Dixon’s and Jack Hazan’s rare film document, Meeting the Man: James Baldwin’s in Paris (1971). Shot twenty-two years after Baldwin first left New York with forty dollars in his pocket for the cold, exacting streets of post-war Paris, Meeting the Man stages for the viewer the stunning misapprehension of the man and the “Negro” celebrity as we find an elegantly turned-out Baldwin in an early scene in front of the Place de la Bastille intensely dragging on a cigarette, his darting and ever-alert eyes scanning Dixon for the import of this cinematic encounter.
As they work out on celluloid the terms of this profile piece, Baldwin clarifies for Dixon his acute disinterest in presenting for a Western audience what he snarlingly refers to as “James Baldwin’s Paris,” reminding him that he could be Bobby Seale or Angela Davis. Dixon dismisses the life and death context of 1970s America to which Baldwin alludes and refuses the comparison given the author’s notoriety. He presses an increasingly agitated Baldwin who then pointedly declares that he is not “some exotic survivor.” Baldwin’s explicit identification with Davis and Seale (both of whom had been charged with crimes in the serious climate of the black power struggles of the time) is but one example of that dirge Baldwin had been singing all his writing life. In front of that monument to the revolutionary impulses of 18th-century French citizens determined to rend freedom and equality from the hands of the dominant and the ruling, James Baldwin’s voice slows down as he queries the hypocrisy between the criminalized struggle for liberation by black revolutionaries in the U.S., and the celebration of égalité and fraternité in Europe.
Ten years later and only a few years before his death, we discover the author at the very beginning of I Heard it through the Grapevine (1982), his cinematic collaboration with Dick Fontaine and Pat Hartley chronicling his return to cities of civil rights struggle in the American South, writing rather pensively at a desk as his boomingly weary voice provides the opening narration: “Medgar, Malcolm, Martin, dead…But what about those unknown, invisible people who did not die, but whose lives were smashed on Freedom Road. And what does this say about the morality of this country or the morality of this age?” The knowing flourish of Baldwin’s lament concerning the material and psychic state of “those unknown, invisible people” in the aftermath of one of the most organized and sustained movements for social transformation this nation has ever witnessed, challenges the viewer to consider the twenty-first century legacy of a struggle the author would later famously characterize as “America’s latest slave rebellion.”
In this film, Baldwin presages and enacts this necessary consideration as he recounts his return to Atlanta, Georgia, to his brother, David, who wonders “what Martin would have thought of his Atlanta now?” He is contemptuous of the highways, freeways, and buildings all bearing Dr. King’s name less than twenty years after his assassination and reads these inscriptions as part of the “extraordinary make-up job” on which the nation has embarked:
And there is the [Martin Luther King, Jr.] monument, which is, and this is a difficult thing to say, but I will say it, absolutely as irrelevant as the Lincoln Memorial. It is one of the ways the Western world has learned, or thinks it’s learned, to outwit history, to outwit time—to make a life and a death irrelevant, to make that passion irrelevant, to make it unusable for you and for our children. And we’re confronting that!
Baldwin engages in a kind of cinematic fieldwork as he returns to reconnect with the civil rights activists with whom he labored in Selma, Birmingham, New Orleans, Florida, Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and, with Amiri Baraka in Newark. Grapevine marks his return to the South after he interrupted his European sojourn to travel to Charlotte, North Carolina in 1957 after seeing an image of Dorothy Counts desegregating a school a year earlier.
This scene of Dorothy Counts facing vulgar, raging white mobs stands out for me in Raoul Peck’s new documentary, I Am Not Your Negro (2016). There is something ancient and haunting in Samuel Jackson’s intonation of Baldwin’s voice as taken from I Remember This House, the author’s thirty-page unfinished manuscript about the lives and assassinations of Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin. Relying on the manuscript, and carefully selected archival videos and images, Peck weaves together a chilling narrative of the history and present of black people in this country. From television interviews, clips from Hollywood’s still jarring racial history, to more recent scenes of the militarized responses to protests of police violence in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere, Peck makes chilling connections between America’s now and then.
I remain compelled by the treatment of Counts in Peck’s new documentary not only because of the grace and impossible courage required of a girl so young, but because of what it confirms about this young experiment called America. Those mobs of angry white citizens represented the country. We can dismiss the national obscenity of grown men and women jeering and spitting at a dignified, young black girl attempting to seek a quality education as the actions of ignorant southerners, but we would be mistaken. If the “story of the Negro in America is the story of America” as Baldwin maintained, what do we do with his statement which provides the charged, if historically understated title of the film? Well, James Baldwin’s devastating 1963 tour of San Francisco, filmed and released by KQED as “Take This Hammer,” which documents the struggle to shield black children in the city from the almost universal message of dispossession and despair that engulfed communities already under siege by the forces of gentrification and urban renewal, might provide an answer. Another important record of Baldwin on film, a particular scene in Hammer is singular in its emotional and metaphysical clarity: Baldwin, seated, dressed in white, a kerchief tied carefully around his neck, considers the existential roots “of something in this country called the nigger.” He continues that he had to know early in life that what was being described had nothing to do with him. He knew, he insists, despite all that had been done to him, that “what you were describing was not me.” If it is true, as Baldwin began, that “what you say about me reveals you,” and since “you” had invented this figure and felt the need to invest black people with all those sedimented associations then, Baldwin argues, you are in fact the nigger.
As the latest entry of the brilliance of James Baldwin on film, I Am Not Your Negro (along with Baldwin’s scathing account of American film-making, The Devil Finds Work) lays bare the rhetorical and imagistic sleight of hand that enables the fiction and terror of race in American life to persist with such a renewed and deadly power. As he suggests, the extent to which we truly wrestle with our psychic need for the myth of the “nigger,” will determine the future of the country. It is still the only song left to sing.
- This was first published on Brooklyn Rail. It is kindly reproduced here with the permission of the editors.