A couple of weeks ago, I finally got a chance to see the documentary film “I am Not you Negro” narrated by Samuel L. Jackson based on the unfinished writings of James Baldwin. The film tackles race in America and Baldwin’s relationships with civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King. My expectation was to simply be prepared for a history lesson, the same as I do for all docs and truthfully when I watch any film on racism, I’m not expecting to learn anything new. Plus I’ve always been an admirer of James Baldwin and cannot recall any other time one of the greatest writers of an era has ever been on the big screen for the world to see. Besides a couple head nods in agreement whenever someone in the film may make a point on racism, the expectancy to have any personal connection was low. However five minutes after the opening credits, I began to feel differently.
James Baldwin speaks of his awareness of the times of people uprising against oppression through organizations while trying to find his place and how he made his contribution during the Civil Rights Movement. Immediately, I identified with that mindset because finding a place for my black conscious mind to be active has been a struggle. Besides taxes and death, my other two fears are contradiction and misinterpretation.
The fear of contradiction came from my past adolescence and early twenty something years being a Detroit native with a “By Any Means” necessary attitude way to achieve a slice of the American pie. By no means will I ever compare my past self to a Nino Brown like figure running his own Carter, but I was a major expert in walking the thin line between being a young black promise or potential nightmare. My part-time schemes that were done to make extra dollar were nothing compared to my friends who were full-time felons engaging in robbery, drug dealing, and solicitation to name a few. Now yes, reading this so far I’m sure you’ll be quick to educate me on others who had a shady past that has gone on to become great achievers. As often as we hear about these great individuals who have made the ultimate “change” in their lives for the greater good, we often do not mention nor remember the many others who failed at redemption and I worried that I would be in that category. Years ago, I was at a forced crossroads choosing between being a black male statistic or full-time college student. I choose to attend Howard University and give a full effort to the potential that so many folks from my village had said they saw in me. Through the years, that choice came with a few relapses before I became fully able to commit and it is also the reason why at times I would caution myself when speaking out too publicly for certain causes.
The fear of misinterpretation comes from the concern that my present self would be examined through limited eyes. I like to wear suits on occasion but not all the time and wearing something around my neck usually brings bad memories of recess period during my private Catholic middle school days when I would damn near choke whenever my tie would get caught in some fence or rusted nail. My standard button-up and jeans attire are so uninformed that one of my close friends said that I dress like a mannequin in a Macy’s store. And if my choice of clothing doesn’t fit the standard of approval then certainly my free use of the N-word will definitely raise eyebrows in certain black intellectual circles. My relationship with the use of the N-word has gone through many stages from not using it to using it all the time or simply using it as an explanation point. Yes I have heard and debated every argument known to man on its dirty history and can assure you as a rational human being I will always be willing to continue having that discussion unless it includes the following:
- “White people used to call us that!”
- “You get mad when a white person says it!”
- “It’s embarrassing whenever you say it in front of white people!” (My favorite)
If you haven’t understood yet, pretty much you will lose me with any argument based on the concerns of whiteness and the insecurities that it brings.
I battled with these complexities my entire life and as I continued to watch I Am Not Your Negro my personal relation began to peak when James Baldwin mentioned that he couldn’t join Malcolm X’s early ideology because the belief that all white people were evil was a concept he(Baldwin) could not accept. While I do not feel the need to mention every Caucasian that has shown kindness or writes a list of those whom I consider a friend, racism is a systematic disease that is learned and taught versus the idea that certain individuals are born with bigotry in their DNA. To grow up a nonconformist with strong social views with an anti-establishment nature, words like “Militant” was said to me so often that at times I began to believe it myself. However, my mind would quickly change whenever I found myself in a room filled with real radical folk whose ideas were so far left that I would feel more of a fraud than a gangsta rapper who is getting robbed for the first time. In the past whenever one of my extremist friends would scream something crazy like “Obama needs to tell Congress to F—k off!!!” I would roll my eyes and feel contempt for that person. Not to mention whenever I found myself in the same breathing space of a group of Hotep brothers that started their rhetoric with alternative facts about how “If our black sisters would support us more with cooking and cleaning our young men would not be made gay or having sex with white women blah blah blah…” There are not enough stars in the entire solar system to compare the times my voice went hoarse like Doc Rivers arguing against that barbershop like talk of B.S. to a group of overgrown bearded dudes who smell like cocoa incense.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s Christian based civil rights approach also did not appear to be up to James Baldwin’s alley. The status quo of being the straight-laced button up Christian Brother who always had to uphold those strong religious principles did not align with Baldwin who also was documented in the film by the F.B.I. to be a homosexual. As a heterosexual black man, my turn off was any stereotypical black church that preaches against homosexuality like it’s a disease or plague. All the while the service was always over four hours long and a request for donations occurred every 12mins. Plus, I’m almost certain that whatever my first word was as an infant had to have ended with a question mark because while growing up I questioned everything and everyone. There were many times where my inability to accept what was being taught without question created a challenge and internal conflict with anything faith based. Many issues stirred my emotional conflict with religion especially when I had learned how it was used to control slaves on plantations and beyond. That knowledge for myself made me at times view those older black Christians I grew up around as weak and nimble even if they were family. Not to mention the contradictions I continued to bear witness too. The neighborhood pastor who preached against adultery on Sunday mornings, however, was a prostitute that previous Saturday night. The organized black church that would march to the local City Hall to make a protest against “gay marriage” as they passed by the local crack houses in the same neighborhood. These overzealous acts were a constant turn off and one of the many issues that would turn me away from the church in general. It is also fair to mention how that growing up watching MLK on TV he looked like the perfect black man. Dr. King was a strong, dignified, God fearing intelligent unflawed superhero that according to the adults in the room “the man that every young person should aspire to be like.” To grow up an 80s baby where the church folk hated the use of cuss words, drugs & alcohol, sex before marriage and of course Hip Hop was a struggle considering my surroundings. Now I’ve never smoked weed or used any drug besides an aspirin. I definitely used cuss words as a kid when no adults were around and as a grown-up, I’m well known to throw in a mutha— or two when needed. Hip Hop as a culture saved my life by providing a space of expression to live in comfortably and it connected to my everyday visuals. The idea of “sex before marriage” was never thought about on my block and even further from my mind once entered college. When I looked myself in the mirror I saw everything the church at the time said I was not and had no interest in changing for acceptance.
History can often be cruel to its heroes. In the present day, the story of Medgar Evers is ignored like the stepchild who is a straight A student. Once upon a time the former field secretary for the NAACP, Evers worked many hours against segregation in the south until his assignation in 1963. On the mainstream stage of black history, Medgar Evers sacrifice is often either slightly mentioned or completely overshadowed by the deaths of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In “I Am Not Your Negro” James Baldwin states how “Evers dropped him off at the airport” and he heard about his (Evers) death after landing. Although Baldwin considered Evers a close friend he admired, the idea of joining the NAACP was not a possibility. From Baldwin’s perspective, the NAACP often showed acts of service based on classicism within the black community. Baldwin “being a poor boy born and raised in New York City” could not see himself being a member of an organization that would ignore any class of people. Now, this was a mindset I felt all too well during my experience when I first entered Howard University. In college, I was introduced to a brave new world of political groups, Greek organizations and Jack & Jill type social clubs that I had no idea existed. At first, it was overwhelming, to say the least, because, from my ignorant standpoint, I thought that all the black organizations were killed off in the 1960s. Admittedly I felt a rage of resentment towards these organizations whenever I walked passed one of them on the campus. While most students looked in awe on first Fridays on the yard watching fraternities & sororities step and other organizations rally, my emotions felt a trail of anger and disappointment. Back then my thought process was simple, “If these organizations are about service and betterment of Black people, then how come I never seen nor heard of them in my neighborhood?” I thought of all those “Forgotten blacks” I grew up with who had their hand in raising me. The once crack addict mother whose kids were taken away from her and now works as a cashier at the corner grocery store. The laid off plant worker who has been drinking Wild Irish Rose on the corner sitting on the same crate for days. These types of folk made sure I got home safe whenever I walked passed that crate after school while at the same time allowed me to purchase the bread at the grocery store even when I was a dollar short. In the past, I never believed any white organizations could or would do anything to service my forgotten community but to discover that there were Blacks who had power in numbers that could? Yes, I would say my resentment ranked high. I had concluded that I had no interest in sitting at a table that excluded the likes of where I was from.
Although the collection of “I Am Not Your Negro” writings by James Baldwin is considered unfinished, I got the sense towards the end of the film that he (Baldwin) came to find his place in the fight against oppression. Baldwin recognizes that his relationship with the three most dynamic Civil Rights leaders of a generation was not by chance and that maybe his role was one of a documenter of the struggle. Baldwin, who was older than the three, realized the importance of being a voice that could transcend throughout time.
Over the years, I began to make peace with my inner conflict with most of the issues I had. I no longer accept the tag of being called “militant” because not only is it something that I am not but it never seems to come off as a compliment but more so a dismissive insult. Some fight outside the system while others work within, so who is to say that it is not possible to have a balance of both? I’ve evolved to a less of a religion to a more spiritual mind that now understands that challenging the teachings doesn’t make me an atheist but strengthens my faith because of an openness to learn more. During my time at Howard University, I have made friends who have become more family than any bloodline I’ve shared if not more. Some of these friends are members of the same organizations that I once heavily criticized. These same friends who I’ve seen perform acts of community service have altered by attitude and stopped me from generalizing them in a negative light. Because of my background, I still never had an interest in being a member of an organization, fraternity or social group. However, my criticism of their existence has become less personal and more objective while accepting that their place has an importance to someone if not me.
The fight to keep an internal balanced sense of self is as about as much of a struggle as the trail to achieve it. The murder of 17year old Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch guy George Zimmerman along with the deaths of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland were a few casualties that stirred a rage of emotion within me that would not so easily go away. Today’s new world of social media supplied visuals that were as horrific as they were unforgettable. As people rebelled in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities by rising up, like James Baldwin, I began to question my place in the struggle and how can I make a contribution that was helpful and yet still true to myself. My admiration for those who are constant marchers is backed by the respect that they may have qualities that I do not possess. I also recognize that I wanted to be more active than a couple of long written social media statuses, which I’ve done also. I gained a peace of mind by understanding that like Baldwin there is no perfect way to get involved yet, however, I do need to be involved. Time has helped me to view my imperfections as a quality that can help reach others like myself who at times have felt similar. Hip Hop culture was and has always been my salvation because its imperfections never seem to blind its true purpose, which is to be a voice for the unheard. Maybe like James Baldwin, I too can serve as a documenter who can exist in various realms of activism as long as those differences are united by a common purpose. The fight against oppression and injustice based on racism, sexism, or any other forms inequality is a continuous battle; the challenge to find my space to dedicate my efforts is constant. I am no longer conflicted or concern myself with being viewed as a contradiction because of my passion to make a change will always be fueled by desire and it is that desire that will always keep me centered and never misinterpreted.