I recently was offered the opportunity to get an early peek at the upcoming documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which chronicles James Baldwin’s views and thoughts on the civil rights movement roughly through the lives and deaths of three of his friends: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers.
The narrative is done entirely using Baldwin’s own words and the result is quite beautiful from a literary standpoint. His poetic eloquence delivered the logical and emotional content together in a powerful punch. At one point, in a show of frustration with those who deny the issues, he says: “Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Insightful as he was eloquent, in a debate at Cambridge, Baldwin, who thought Robert Kennedy to be an insincere supporter of Civil Rights, points out the absurdity of Kennedy’s statement on the possibility of a black president: “I remember when the ex-attorney general Robert Kennedy said it was conceivable that in 40 years in America we might have a negro president and that sounded like a very emancipated statement I suppose to white people, they were not in Harlem when the statement was first heard and will not hear and possible will never hear the laughter and the bitterness and the scorn which was taken when the statement was greeted from the point of view of the man in the Harlem barber shop Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday and now he is already on his way to the presidency we have been here 400 years and now he tell us that maybe in 40 years if you are good we may let you become president.” Amazingly, Kennedy’s insincerity was representative of America as we indeed did not see a black President for 40 years. Here is the Cambridge debate.
For me personally, the documentary was overwhelming. The imagery of the black struggle combined with Baldwin’s razor-sharp poetry caused me to pause the film several times. It brought back to life not only the events, but the feelings of the era. It reminded me of the world my mother came of age in and the deep challenges that Malcom, Martin, and Medgar sought to overcome. It’s all that I have been able to think about since.
It brought me back to being a little girl and hoping to grow up to be Shirley Temple or one of the Brady girls, but definitely not Penny from Good Times. The imagery of black people in those days was so negative, but that was only the beginning. Baldwin and King didn’t rail against illegal discrimination as some people do today, they fought legal racism. Black people were officially designated second class citizens by the U.S. Government.
It was a reminder that, despite what many say, we’ve made amazing progress as a people and a country thanks to Malcom, Martin, Medgar, and James. Young white girls are just as likely to want to grow up to be Beyonce as I wanted to be Shirley Temple. That’s real and that’s built on the backs of true heroes. To dismiss our progress is to dismiss their accomplishments. We have a long way to go, but if you want to be inspired this black history month, please go see I Am Not Your Negro.
I remain optimistic.
Originally published at medium.com