James Baldwin is a revolutionary historical figure and honorary unapologetic, and every piece of work that he has left behind is brilliant.
The film I Am Not Your Negro draws upon Baldwin’s notes on the lives and assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. to explore and bring a fresh and radical perspective to the current racial narrative in America. The film revisits his work, speeches, and television appearances weaved with the grainy footage of 1940s Birmingham, Alabama, juxtaposed by videos of 2014 Ferguson, Missouri.
Here are the most unforgettable quotes from the documentary, which can be seen on the PBS series, Independent Lens on January 15, 2018.
1.“Leaving aside the bloody catalog of oppression, what this does to [the American Negro] is it destroys his sense of reality. It comes as a great shock around the age of 6-7 that when Gary Cooper killing off the American Indians, when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, the Indians are you. It comes as a great shock to discover that the country, which is your birth place, and to which you owe your life and your identity has not in it’s whole system of reality involved any place for you.”
2. “I was not a Black Muslim, for the same vein, though for different reason that I did not become a Black Panther, because I did not believe that white people were devils and I did not want the young Black people to believe that. I was not a member of any Christian congregation because I knew they had heard but not lived by the commandment ‘love one another as I love you.’ And I was not a member of the NAACP because in the north, where I grew up, the NAACP was fatally entangled with Black class distinctions … which repelled a boy like me.”
3.“There are days in this country when you wonder what your role in this country is and your place in it. How precisely are you going to reconcile yourself to your situation here and how you are going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here? I am terrified at the moral apathy, the death of the heart, which is happening in my country. These people deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I’m human. I base this on their conduct, not on what they say. This means that they have become moral monsters.”
“A Black man who sees the world in the way John Wayne sees it would not be an eccentric patriot, but a raving maniac…The truth is that this country does not know what to do with it’s Black population.”
“I know how you watch as you grow older, the corpses of your brothers and your sisters pile up around you. Not as a result of anything they have done, they were too young to have done anything. But what one does realize is that when you try to stand up and look the world in the face as if you had a right to be here, you have attacked the entire power structure of the western world.”
“I am speaking as a member of a certain democracy and a very complex country that insists on being very narrow-minded. Simplicity is taken to be a great American virtue along with sincerity. One of the results of this is that immaturity is taken to be a great virtue, too.”
“If we were white, our heroes would be your heroes too. Malcolm X would still be alive…when the Israelis or the Poles pick up guns and say ‘give me liberty or give me death,’ the entire white world applauds. When a Black man says exactly the same thing, he is judged a criminal and treated like one. Everything is done to make an example of this bad n**ga so there won’t be anymore like him.”
8. “The entertainment industry is compelled to present to the American people a self-perpetuating fantasy of American life. The mere concept of entertainment is difficult to distinguish from the use of narcotics. To watch the TV screen for any length of time is to learn some really frightening things about the American sense of reality. We are cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. We cannot possibly begin to become what we would like to be until we ask ourselves exactly why the lives we live on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame, and lonely. These images are designed not to trouble, but to reassure. They also weaken our inability to deal with the world as it is — ourselves, as we are.”
9. “All of the Western nations have been caught in a lie: a lie of their pretended humanism. History has no moral justification and the west has no moral authority. For a very long time America prospered; this prosperity cost millions of people their lives. Now, not even those who are the most spectacular beneficiaries of this prosperity, are able to endure these benefits. They can neither enjoy, nor do without these benefits. Above all, imagine the price paid the victims or subjects for this way of life and so they cannot afford to know why the victims are revolting. This is the formula for a nation declined, for the nation does not work in the way it’s advocates think in fact it does. It does not, for example, reveal to the victim the strength of the adversary. On the contrary, it reveals the weakness, even the panic, of the adversary and this invests the victim with passion.”