On September 4, 1957, Dorothy Counts started school at Harry Harding High in Charlotte, North Carolina. This was three years after Brown vs. Board of Education. It had taken as long for North Carolina to pass the Pearsall Plan, which conceded that integration was unavoidable (They would not be rushed in implementing it, though). At the time, Dorothy was one of four black students enrolled at an all-white school in the state. She was the only one at Harding.
James Baldwin — the famous, black, and expatriated American writer — observed from afar.
“Facing us, on every newspaper kiosk on that wide, tree-shaded boulevard in Paris were photographs of fifteen-year-old Dorothy Counts,” he wrote.“It was on that bright afternoon that I knew I was leaving France. I could, simply, no longer sit around in Paris discussing the Algerian and the black American problem. Everybody else was paying their dues, and it was time I went home and paid mine.”
Nine years earlier, at the age of 24, he had fled Harlem and ended up in Paris because, as he put it in a 1984 interview with the Paris Review: “I knew what it meant to be white, and I knew what it meant to be a n*gger, and I knew what was going to happen to me. My luck was running out. I was going to go to jail; I was going to kill somebody or be killed.” Paris was a matter of chance.
The important thing was that it was not America. Paris relieved him of the burden of being black in America; in France, more or less, he was simply black. The first two years were difficult in other ways, but by 1950, he found a new authorial momentum. In 1955, his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain was published, and Baldwin was established as a literary talent. A collection of essays followed two years later, entitled Notes of a Native Son, and Baldwin was further hailed as an intellectual of uncommon clarity.
While Baldwin was transforming, so too was his country. The Civil Rights movement was growing. Rosa Parks said No on December 1, 1955, and America met Martin Luther King Jr. soon after. In the summer of 1957, when Baldwin returned home, the Civil Rights Act of that year was on the floor of Congress, ending an 82-year hiatus from civil rights legislation.
I Am Not Your Negro opens here, upon the return of the prodigal son, and the awakening of the dormant American beast.
The film is organized around Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript for a book that was to be titled Remember This House. In it, he planned to reflect on the lives of three friends: Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King Jr. He had known them all well, and had loved them. Along with others, they led the Civil Rights Movement of the fifties and sixties, and though their methods and ideologies often differed, they were united in their belief that African Americans should be treated equally, both as citizens and human beings.
All of these men were murdered by forty.
In a bit of reflection, Baldwin wrote, “I want these three lives to bang against and reveal each other, as, in truth, they did … and 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.” Nevertheless, the film seems less focused on the lives of these men than on the umwelt of James Baldwin: We are made to see as he saw. Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin all make appearances, of course, and their words are grounded by images of history.
The shot of Dorothy Parker and her crowd. Another shot of three high school boys, with crew-cuts and collared shirts, holding signs declaring We won’t go to school with Negroes and Strike against integration of Clinton High. But this collage serves mostly to center the words of Baldwin, whose perspective is what propels the film. Seldom does he physically grace the screen, and usually it’s only to speak. But when he speaks, it’s with the passion of a preacher, the precision of a poet, and the specificity of a man.
I was enthralled.
But the guy behind me fell asleep. Halfway through, a lone and impudent snore emerged.
And so I asked myself: Why? Why did the man fall asleep? Perhaps the words are not so enthralling, I wondered; but I quickly dismissed this notion.
My father was the first to introduce me to Baldwin; he lent me his Library of America edition of Baldwin’s collected essays. I finished “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and some of “The Harlem Ghetto” before putting it down. But I was impressed; I remember, by the style which was taut like a quivering string. Emotion pulses throughout, but it is under strictest control. Baldwin, in fact, did preach from age fourteen to seventeen, and that grand, symphonic, yet modulated parlance echoes throughout his prose. I concluded, then, after giving it some thought, that it wasn’t the words that were lacking.
I realized that I was over thinking. It was a 9:45 showing. Of a dense documentary. I softened and returned my attention to the film. Baldwin recalls a day in Palm Springs by the pool. The phone rings, he picks it up. Martin has just been shot.
“I hardly remember the rest of the evening at all,” he wrote. “I remember weeping, briefly, more in helpless rage than in sorrow … But I really don’t remember that evening at all.”
From the start, Baldwin maintains that he does not hate white people. The problem, he argues, is that whites for so long have relied on Negroes to safeguard their purity.
They are terrified, he says, of their private selves. To admit the fact that they are responsible for the enslavement of an entire race of people would be to admit that sad journeys through glossy shopping malls which constitute their lives are nothing but ephemeral dreams.
They cannot face the reality which they have induced. But it is essential that they do. Because until they do, it will all continue — the rape, the murder, the exploitation — just as it has since 1619.
I’ve never known, nor will I ever know, what it means to be black. But I damn well know that it’s easier being white. It took a while for me to realize this, and much less time to repress the fact, and the only reason it came up again was this film.
It is addressed to white America. “I am not your Negro.” It begs that we recognize the momentum of the past. Racism didn’t end in 1964.
I felt ashamed in that theater because I’d been pretending that it had. I’d been pretending that it wasn’t a problem for which I still had to stand up. My father is a black man, and I’ve grown up liberal. Instead of using those things as fuel, I used them to excuse myself from action.
I wondered who else in the audience felt as I did. How many were so confident in the sheer conviction of their beliefs that, instead of marching or protesting, they were seeing a documentary as a means of cleansing their conscience? Or how many had a black friend, whom they honest-to-God liked, who lives as proof of their own good heart? How many still, almost ten years later, sport the Obama ’08 and ’12 bumper stickers? And is that better than nothing?
In the film, Baldwin states, “We are cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. And we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are so empty, so tame, and so ugly.”
We must be willing to admit that we are not what we think we are. As the credits rolled, I sat dumbfounded, only hoping that those approving clucks and wow’s emanating from the audience would translate into something more palpable than a recommendation, but that wouldn’t be so bad either, I suppose. I left the theater that night sadder than usual, but I felt something else, too.
It reminded me of the calmness that comes after therapy; though rummaging has knocked some things around, the action of addressing the mess has been a relief. It is generally poor form to end a piece with words other than your own, but in this case, I feel it is merited.
In the wise words of James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”