At the time of writing this, it has been 7 days since I met author and activist James Baldwin, albeit posthumously via a screening of the Raoul Peck-directed documentary I Am Not Your Negro. The film is based on an unfinished manuscript Baldwin penned discussing his thoughts on and relationships with three Civil Rights icons: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers. Groundbreaking playwright Lorraine Hansberry is also referenced in the film, through Baldwin’s own words, of course. As narrator, Samuel L. Jackson wields his commanding voice to reanimate Baldwin’s.
Based on what little I knew of the man’s reputation, I was prepared to be challenged by Baldwin’s viewpoints, to be intrigued by his intellectualism and worldliness, to be stimulated by his unapologetic boldness. What I wasn’t expecting was to meet a forefather far more relatable to my personal experience than many modern counterparts.
Let me start by saying that I have never read any of Baldwin’s works in their entirety. I come from a conservative, centrist background based in a strict (some would say cult-ish) religion, so the queer (odd) and queer (not heterosexual) James Baldwin was not a figure we discussed at home or in school. He was not the Martin or even the Malcolm of grade-school Black History Month presentations. He was not the gracefully protestant Rosa Parks or the matronly poetic Maya Angelou. I see now that he was not as palatable as these figures. It was harder to distill him into a paragon appropriate for posters on classroom walls. I understand this, so I don’t blame my parents and educators for keeping him from me. Yet, we’ve met now, and I’m forever changed.
What I identified with most was how Baldwin felt like an outsider within the movement and community he was inextricably bound to. He did not adhere to the tenants of the black Christian church, and could not believe in a God that would want black folks to blindly turn the other cheek. He did not hate the “white devil,” but he did take white folks to task with razor sharpness, in their own lecture halls and on their own nightly talk shows. He could not stand with the NAACP for what he perceived to be a classist air to their modus operandi. I, too, do not identify with the traditional black church, and I find that my thoughts on God and spirituality are constantly evolving. I do not hate white people at all, but the climate of this country has unleashed a part of me that doesn’t suffer fools gladly when it comes to systemic racism and even daily microaggressions. While I’ve often been judged to be “respectable” by our fairer counterparts, I know that respectability politics will not spare me any of the prejudicial judgments of the ignorant. Baldwin laid a marvelous blueprint for embracing one’s otherness and using that uniqueness for the common good.
In the film, much more could have, arguably should have, been made of Baldwin’s sexuality. It is mentioned in passing in a quote from devil-incarnate J. Edgar Hoover’s dossier, but that is the most direct reference in the entire film. Perhaps that integral facet of his person was minimized to give Baldwin broader appeal, but it does a great disservice to his legacy, for his passion and conviction were born in the fires of intersectionality, the same cauldron that produces today’s artists and activists like DeRay McKesson, Janelle Monae, and even myself. Black. Male. Queer. Intellectual. Expatriate. Baldwin was an amalgam of all these things, and none can be removed lest we get an incomplete picture of this astounding human being.
All in all, I am happy to have truly met Mr. Baldwin at last. I don’t expect one film to convey the full breadth of a human being, so I now have the goal of delving into his literary works so as to pick apart his fascinating brain and to be inspired in a time that is as perilous and tumultuous as ever. I Am Not Your Negro is a gift, a warning, a lesson. I hope that audiences of various colors and backgrounds allow themselves to meet James Baldwin as I did.
Jason Pure is a singer/songwriter who brings honesty and soul to his musical storytelling, melding influences from various genres including R&B, pop, folk and alt rock. Born in Columbia, SC, he relocated to Atlanta, GA in 2004, seizing the opportunity to pursue his career in music. Since then, he has performed at such respected venues as Vinyl, Smith’s Olde Bar, Kat’s Café and 800 East. Having released two projects independently since 2008, Jason is putting the finishing touches on his most meaningful work to-date, an EP entitled "Forecast" due in in the spring of 2017.