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Forgetting to remember

It is a devastating fact that James Baldwin is our contemporary; so much so, that the matter of his relevance seems either pressing or redundant depending on to whom one speaks. Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, a “cinematic séance” (The Guardian), is being taken as the completion of Baldwin’s unfinished Remember This House, roughly thirty pages extant, in which Baldwin looks back on the lives of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. To render Baldwin’s project in film was Peck’s aim and, given that he was granted unprecedented access to Baldwin’s papers by the estate, he was as well positioned as anyone could be to carry it off. Nevertheless, it is an Olympian hurdle Peck set himself up to clear—particularly when one considers Baldwin’s stated goals for Remember This House. The attempt to “re-member” this house, he points out in a 1982 PBS interview, implies an effort to “put back together” (a remark that brings to mind Malcolm X’s warning and Martin Luther King Jr.’s late expressed fear that “we are integrating into to a burning house”). Baldwin wanted, Peck quotes from the unfinished manuscript, to “use their dreadful journey as a means of instructing the people whom they loved so much, who betrayed them, and for whom they gave their lives.” It is depressing that, given the attention the film has received, the matter of Baldwin’s intended instruction has not been taken up by reviewers—and none dare touch the question Baldwin raises of betrayal.

Yet touted, again and again, by reviewers is Baldwin’s “relevance”—a concept that, for the way and frequency with which it’s currently trafficked, is overdue for renovation. All that is needed to be deemed relevant is the appearance, even to the obtuse, of being in some way a reflection of a recognizable societal malady. But to see a problem—e.g., “the Negro Problem,” in the liberal parlance of Baldwin’s time—as a social phenomenon requires intellectual distance; abstraction that all too often results in a disconnect. As Baldwin, acutely attuned to liberal rhetoric and quick to evaporate categories, says, “Either we’re talking about you and me, or we’re not talking.” That relevance must be relevant to something, most immediately to one’s experience, accounts for the surprise, if not outright shock, at the film in certain quarters, and the more than occasional murmurs of recognition it elicits in others. Put another way, to those who now find Baldwin “surprisingly relevant,” many thousands—and many more than that—could ask, “Where have you been?

Baldwin once said that Malcolm X’s great authority over his audiences rests in the fact the he “corroborates their reality.” I Am Not Your Negro corroborates the most dire aspects of being black in America while it makes an appeal to whites. Peck comes to the appeal, the crux of the film, about three-fourths of the way in. The film clip is from a televised interview with Kenneth Clark that aired in 1963. Baldwin: “What white people have to do is to try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger 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.  Why?  That’s the question you have got to ask yourself.” Note Baldwin’s diction, his deployment of “nigger” whereas the filmmaker, presumably drawing on this very segment for his title, opts for “Negro”; a nicety, in this context, courting a white audience. Peck is no doubt aware that none fear the “N-word” as much as white people—the liberal whites most likely to meet him at the box office and hear Baldwin out. Whether or not Peck felt this was a necessary concession is a side issue. The crux is the question Baldwin poses, “Why?” It’s the same examination Baldwin had been calling for, by then, for more than a decade. It’s the “unanswered and unnoticed” question, the conspicuous absence of which, Baldwin located in Mrs. Stowe (“Everybody’s Protest Novel,” 1949): “What it was, after all, that moved her people to such deeds.” Peck, if he leaves the question unanswered, cannot be accused of not noticing it.

But considering Peck’s stated purpose and Baldwin’s proposals for Remember This House, the film takes some odd and, for the opportunities missed, unfortunate detours. Extended segments of the film, rather than pursuing Baldwin’s unfinished project, are adaptations of passages from The Devil Finds Work (1976), Baldwin’s account of the promotion of the racial myths in American film from The Birth of a Nation onward, and the effects of those myths on the psychology of the viewer—black or white.

In his notes for Remember This House, Baldwin writes, I want these three lives to bang against and reveal each other as, in truth, they did.” But what was revealed is not elaborated or even speculated on in the film. Peck tempts us again with another manuscript excerpt regarding Martin and Malcolm specifically: “By the time each died, their positions had become virtually the same position. It can be said, indeed, that Martin picked up Malcolm’s burden, articulated the vision which Malcolm had begun to see and for which he paid with his life.” Here again, the central matter—Baldwin’s “means of instructing”—is dropped. The viewer is left to guess at the position each had come to. Even if we accept Remember This House as merely a starting point for I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin’s assertion deserves explication. This could have been done in the film, sticking to Peck’s method, with Baldwin’s words. Here is Baldwin, from an interview contemporaneous with his work on Remember This House:

The only reason you talked to Martin is because you were afraid to talk to Malcolm. That’s the only reason you talked to Martin. And then when both men (and this happened before your eyes), when both men arrived at the same point—that is to say when they connected—then the great black disaster: the global disaster. At the point where Malcolm came back from Mecca and said, ‘White is a state of mind; white people are not devils. You are only as white as you want to be’ and when Martin connected the plight of garbage men in Memphis with Korea and Vietnam, then both men were killed.

Speaking directly to “when they connected,” this short statement, made in 1981, would have done a great deal to close a major gap in Peck’s film. The “great black disaster,” both realized, was a consequence of empire and exploitation, militarism and poverty. As Baldwin put it in another late interview, not quoted in the film, “They have to have the nigger to justify the crime.” Malcolm’s burden was his growing awareness of the global scope of white supremacy, and arriving at the means to address it—how that is, to press not for civil rights merely but for human rights. Martin Luther King Jr. did indeed pick that up, taking, in the last years of his life, a broader international view with economics at the center. The boldest articulation of King’s vision, and Baldwin may be alluding to it, is his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, delivered one year to the day before his assassination. The connection they made was arrived at from both sides by transcending nationalism, by linking, as Baldwin says, “the peasant in Saigon and the peasant in Detroit.” We get a flicker of this connection when Baldwin—through Samuel Jackson—says, “I attest to this: the world is not white; it never was white, cannot be white. White is a metaphor for power, and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank.”

Accepting white is a metaphor and, as Baldwin maintains elsewhere, “when I say ‘white,’ I’m not talking about the color of anybody’s skin, I’m not talking about race,” the question arises as to where that leaves Baldwin in relation to blackness. During his debate with Malcolm X in 1963, Baldwin claims to find the whole question of race “absolutely insidious,” and later, putting a provocative spin on “White is a state of mind” says, “you cannot tell a black man by the color of his skin.” For Baldwin, “Color is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality”—“black” is a necessary opposition forged in an environment in which, judging by the evidence, those “who think of themselves as White” imagine their lives to be of greater value. Thus Baldwin’s oft repeated, “As long as you think you’re white, I’m gonna be forced to think I’m black.” As ideologies of race from all sides prove adaptive, this aspect of Baldwin is hard to recognize in the contemporary scene and is barely discernible in Peck’s film.

Baldwin confronted race and sexuality head-on, not just to affirm who he was and whence he came but to wrestle with who he was, and was becoming. In “The White Problem,” he counsels, “you will learn a certain humility, because the terms that you have invented, which you think describe and define you, inevitably collide with the facts of life.” To cling to terms, your own or those imposed, against the facts of life is to be self-deluded; to choose the safety of your particular definitions, to choose the protection of your identity over paying your dues is the white problem.” It is a problem to which anyone—of any color—is susceptible.

In an age of identity politics, it appears as though Baldwin has left us, intellectually speaking, in the dust. And Peck, by appealing to an audience well prepared to meet Baldwin on the terms he (Peck) lays out, may have obscured a Baldwin which, in our current state, might do us the most good by pulling us through the mirror of our habits and our attitudes. Baldwin, who left for Paris to escape being “merely a Negro writer,” and whose preferred qualifying clause was “it seems to me,” would, I think, have had a hard time with the knee-jerk prefatory “As” (i.e., “As a queer artist of color, …”) that now commonly circulates. It is not that Baldwin ever shrunk from his particularity; on the contrary, he sought to widen it, to expand his perspective; not “stand for” a view imposed or as representative of an abstract category. The prefatory “As,” to press on just one symptom of prevailing attitudes, not only self-proscribes but carries with it too many assumptions—and a line of credit on social terms vague; it asks the hearer to accept these assumptions at face-value. We gather from it no sense of whether one has “paid his dues,” as Baldwin says, or, for that matter, where one is coming from—especially with regard to class. Repelled by black class distinctions from early on—“a shoeshine boy like me”—and wary of the assimilation into white institutions by “middle-class darkies,” it’s easy to imagine Baldwin wondering, as the protagonist in his “Previous Condition” wondered, “if [he] was able to trust anybody. Not on top, where all the world could see, but underneath where everybody lives.”

Betrayal is difficult to examine; anyone at all inclined to try has lived enough to expect being implicated. To “use their dreadful journey as a means of instructing the people whom they loved so much, who betrayed them, and for whom they gave their lives” is, if instruction can be tested, to force us to face that betrayal. Those words: “who betrayed them” are the hardest words in Peck’s film to hear, the hardest, that is, to take in. To whom does Baldwin refer? Whose betrayal is it? Certainly, we’d all like to say, “not me, not mine.” And with that said, skip the question. For his part, Peck doesn’t take it up. But I doubt Baldwin would let us off so easy.

In the opening minutes of I Am Not Your Negro, Peck excerpts a letter from Baldwin to his literary agent, dated July 30th 1979, in which Baldwin writes of a journey “which I always knew that I would have to make”—his return to the South. Baldwin made arrangements with The New Yorker that year to write an article based on the trip to be titled “Remember This House.” Although the article, like the book, was never completed, there was a journey—and a film. I Heard It Through the Grapevine (1982; Dick Fontaine, Pat Hartley dir.), documents Baldwin’s return to Selma, Birmingham, and Atlanta, his first in almost a quarter of a century (as well as a conference with Chinua Achebe in St. Augustine, and a visit with Amiri Baraka to the ruins of Newark). As revisiting the South was to inform the framework of Remember This House, the film has a unique relation to the unfinished book—it lets us in on Baldwin’s impressions and preoccupations while the work was underway.

Revisiting Atlanta, Baldwin talks with a schoolteacher about the prospects for the black population. Of the recent high school graduates, he asks, “What are the children thinking? What are the children’s options, according to them? They can’t all have Toyotas.” The unnamed interviewee’s answer and Baldwin’s response are significant. To Baldwin’s question the interviewee answers, “It’s totally incomprehensible to me that black people could end up wanting only what the descendants of our oppressors want for this society and for the world.” Without a beat, Baldwin replies, “Well, what you’re talking about is madness”— madness and, I venture, betrayal; betrayal because it is an assent to the values of the larger society—a society built on the doctrine of white supremacy—which leaves the structure of that society, and the position of the vast number of blacks within it, unchanged. At the risk of belaboring the point, it might serve to call capitalism by name. The price of “acceptance” on such grounds is one’s participation in the status quo inhumanity toward other blacks. Thus Baldwin says, “what really exercises my mind is not this hypothetical day on which some other Negro ‘first’ will become the first Negro President. What I am really curious about is just what kind of country he’ll be President of.” And with more intense directness, “I don’t ever intend to make my peace with such a world; there is so much that’s more important than Cadillacs, Frigidaires, and IBM machines… Do you think this is what the country is for? Do you really think this is why I came here, this is why I suffered, this is what I would die for?” With the shift into the interrogative, Baldwin’s “I” assumes the voice of a transhistorical representative of black oppression—“why I came here” recalling the slave’s journey to America from Africa (he makes a similar rhetorical move in the Dick Cavett Show footage seen in I Am Not Your Negro; used previously in Karen Thorsen’s The Price of the Ticket). This is not a sign of racial essentialism at odds with Baldwin’s remarks on race, but an indication of his political commitments, and his conviction that American Blacks, by making use of their past, could constitute a transformative force and redeem that past.

The Secret of Selling the Negro—a McCarthy era short made with the cooperation of The United States Department of Commerce (excerpted by Peck in I Am Not Your Negro)—typifies what Baldwin is confronting. The film instructs American businessmen on the buying habits of “Negros,” and is even more callous than one might suppose from the segments Peck employs. Its aim is to foster and exploit in the “Negro” the desire for keeping up with the Joneses. The film takes for granted, with some justification, that “These days nobody’s likely to pass up chances to sell,” and assumes the constituents of its target audience harm their bottom-lines—they needn’t mention the GDP—with outmoded racial biases: “Why let a lot of old–fashioned ideas hurt profits?” After all, “They’ll buy from anybody who wants to sell to them.” This rosy claim—overly optimistic from a commercial standpoint, and blatantly racist from any angle—conjures an addict; and with the addict a disturbing prognosis. Baldwin tell us, “it is romantic, more, meaningless, to speak of a ‘new’ society as the desire of the oppressed, for that shivering dependence on the props of reality which he shares with the Herrenvolk makes a truly ‘new’ society impossible to conceive” (“Everybody’s Protest Novel”). This is disturbing because what Baldwin is telling us is that whatever our dispositions, culture and custom limit our imaginations to such a degree that seeing our way to something new is doomed to fail. Only by shaking our dependency on such props do we have a shot at new experiences and with them a new horizon. Baldwin wrote these words in 1949 (again, “Everybody’s Protest Novel”) and although the obvious “props” in the context of the essay are religion and racial identification, consumerism, was, even then, in Baldwin’s purview as yet another way people seek refuge from life. Worse, its edifice rests on brutal exploitation of land and lives: “I am talking about that South African miner on whom the entire life of the Western world is based.” Like all metaphors, the whiteness metaphor has feet on the ground.

To claim Baldwin’s relevance is, in a sense, to secure him for use—to try, anyway. It’s a risky move, one not easily accomplished given his uncompromising individuality. At least as far back as Blues for Mister Charlie (1964), Baldwin was measuring, each against the other, the respective political philosophies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, banging them against each other in his mind as they banged against each other in life. To portray Baldwin politically, to deploy him in effect, “when they connected” must be a central point. For Baldwin to be relevant, he must be Baldwin; he must be, in other words, something more than our ambassador and reflection of current affairs. His relevance is not tested in our image—an image, after all, not to be trusted—but in the degrees to which he pushes us, however harshly, toward a future we choose to make.