James Baldwin
James Baldwin (Allan Warren/Wikimedia Commons)

Author James Baldwin declared: “I am not your Negro.” Which begs the question in my mind then: “Whose Negro am I?”

A half-century ago, Baldwin said: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” That’s me, all right. Dark glasses, surly behavior, lack of acknowledgement of — let alone appreciation for — the enormous progress made by Negroes in my own lifetime…a couple even by me, raging, ungrateful.

More than a half-century before that, W.E.B. DuBois said it this way: “One feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Now that’s also me, head, heart and hands.

That’s the kind of Negro I am.

In the brilliant film “I Am Not Your Negro” by Raoul Peck, Baldwin says it another way: for the average Negro, there’s no life or place imaginable that could be worse than what we have already endured here, in what Brother Malcolm X referred to as “the wilderness of North America.”

What Baldwin tells us is to wake up. We’ve been going to the movies, rooting for the settlers against the Indians — the Redskins — when all the time, the Indians are us!

Just as it was when there was backlash against the civil rights movement — the backdrop of this film and Baldwin’s life—just as it was a half-century before the civil rights movement, when eugenics and the Confederacy, the Ku Klux Klan, and violent retrenchment were seen as part of the acceptable discourse of the day; today we see hate speech “normalized” in the highest offices of the land, and that normalization has given the green light once again to violent, murderous extremists who storm schools, and churches and synagogues, killing innocent people in the name of racial superiority.

In the film, folks are astounded to see “Charlottesville all over the country.”

Baldwin was/is right on time, even 50 years ago.

In the film, Baldwin says: “I can’t be a pessimist because I am alive. The question you gotta ask yourself — the question the white population has to ask itself — is why was it necessary to have a Negro in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. And you gotta find out why. The future of the country depends on that.”

The future of the country depends on that.

What touches me most deeply in this film, is something Baldwin said, that I think pretty much defined his dual roles, activist, writer. Of a famous meeting at the time of a North Carolina school integration incident which Robert F. Kennedy had with a number of Black writers, Baldwin said: “…some of us should have been there with her…” the president should have been there with her, so that when the haters spit on her, they would be spitting on the entire nation.

I learned that Baldwin lived by that creed, when someone needed to be there…

When I came to Washington, 41 years ago after the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter, I was working for the Chicago Daily Defender newspaper, and they got me an office in the National Press Building that had formerly been occupied by Alex Haley, co-author of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and author of the immortal classic “Roots.”

Haley had departed hastily … uh-hum. Not all of his receipts had cleared from the pending project when he left Washington, under the cover of darkness, owing the Press Club a considerable amount of back rent. Happily, when he returned with record-breaking TV viewing and book sales, Emmys, a Pulitzer, he was able settle his accounts and be celebrated, and in the process I got to meet him.

Later, in an interview, Alex Haley told me that in his home, on the same shelf with his Special Pulitzer Prize, his Emmy Award and the other top honors his work had received; he had a can of tuna, a dime, a nickel and three pennies. That can of tuna and 18 cents and a rapidly fading sense of hope that his dream of being a successful writer in Harlem were all he had left, he said.

He had written to all the major Negro writers in Harlem, introducing himself as a retired Coast Guard chief petty officer, journalist, who desperately wanted advice, referrals, encouragement, anything at all he could get from them to help him hold on to his dream.

No one had written him back, and as another new month — and another rent payment — drew near, Haley contemplated his desperate status, with no prospects and only 18 cents and a can of tuna. And then he said there was a knock on his door. It was James Baldwin himself, coming to visit the newcomer, the nobody. Alex Haley’s life immediately changed for the better, he said.

It’s as though James Baldwin always lived the words: “…some one of us had to be there…” I’m so grateful that James Baldwin was there for us.

Askia Muhammad

WPFW News Director Askia Muhammad is also a poet, and a photojournalist. He is Senior Editor for The Final Call newspaper and he writes a weekly column in The Washington Informer.

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