Four James Baldwin Books to Read for the Release of the Documentary ‘I Am Not Your Negro’
James Baldwin helped craft a language to describe and challenge the sharp injustices of the 1960s and 70s. The author died in 1987, but the injustices survived. Now, thirty years after Baldwin's death, an unfinished manuscript and other writings are given new life in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, by filmmaker Raoul Peck. The film, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, is set for US theatrical release February 3. A few weeks later, it will be up for an Oscar in the "Best Documentary Feature" category.
Baldwin is perhaps best loved for his radiant, multilayered novels, like Giovanni’s Room and Go Tell It on the Mountain. But the power of his novels was intimately tied to the excavations he did as an essayist, a historian, and a social critic. Peck has said his first window on Baldwin’s worldview was not the author’s novels, but his 1963 nonfiction collection The Fire Next Door.
Peck’s film speaks directly from Baldwin's writing, using the words from No Name In The Street (1972) and The Devil Finds Work (1976), as well as a number of articles, including "The White Problem" (1964), "Black English: A Dishonest Argument" (1980), and other works from The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (2010), edited by Randall Kenan and published by Baldwin's estate.
But the film’s central inspiration is the famously unfinished work of Baldwin’s final years, a book provisionally titled Remember This House.
McGraw-Hill contracted Baldwin for the book, a proposed "memoir of the civil rights movement, interweaving his personal recollections of the lives of three slain black leaders: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers," to be written in the early 1980s. But Baldwin didn't finish the book before his death from cancer at the age of 63. In an unusually aggressive move, McGraw Hill sued Baldwin's family for the $200,000 advance, although after a public outcry the publisher dropped the suit.
Baldwin’s unfinished pages finally get an airing in I Am Not Your Negro. As they do, read four more of his key nonfiction works: