“History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals. 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.” — James Baldwin (1:26:32–1:27:15, I Am Not Your Negro)
I have finally watched I Am Not Your Negro, the 2016 powerhouse and Oscar nominated film by Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck that is based in the text of Baldwin’s final unfinished manuscript. The movie can be streamed online for free if you missed the opportunity to see it in theaters. It is not pretty, and the imagery is even more difficult than Baldwin’s prose, read as voiceover by Samuel L. Jackson. This film, and Baldwin’s final text, are not love letters to Black people. They are letters to white America, demanding that white people reckon with the historical and contemporary truths of the racism they benefit from.
I am not going to review the film here — there is more than enough excellent writing about it that I would encourage people to read. Try this review at IndieWire, this piece at Rolling Stone, this reflection at the Chicago Reader, this review in the Detroit News, or this analysis at The Root.
I’m going to encourage you to consider this short critique at Wear Your Voice as well, because this sums up a lot of my feelings watching the film. The film is important, and Baldwin’s words are timeless. But the film isn’t for Black people. The film is really a challenge to white people, at any stage in their activism (or lack thereof). The film does a beautiful job of weaving together historical footage and historical film and tv references with contemporary, quite current, realities. The effect proves the things Baldwin was writing about in 1979 and talking about on the Dick Cavett show in 1968 remain just as pressing and true today.
Black people can’t fix what is broken in this country. Only white people can do that. But as Baldwin also says, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” History is the present, carried with us and continuing to repeat until active efforts are made to stop and change course.