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Re-Reading James Baldwin during the Release of the Documentary "I am not your Negro"

Marcia Lynx Qualey By Marcia Lynx Qualey Published on January 29, 2017
This article was updated on October 23, 2017

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:

The Fire Next Time

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This 1963 work contains two essays: "My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation," and "Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind." The book arrived as fiery prophecy in the 1960s, but its sentences also speak to 2017.

Many of them indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one's sense of one's own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man's world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.

No Name in the Street

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This book weaves in and out of the Algerian war of independence, the tyranny of Francisco Franco, the 1963 March on Washington, and the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., which happened when Baldwin was in Hollywood, working on a screen version of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Beyond the book’s assertive mapping power, it also has a wonderful looping way of reaching out for a new idea, taking hold of it, then pulling back, while promising to return for it later.

One could scarcely be deluded by Americans anymore, one scarcely dared expect anything from the great, vast, blank generality; and yet one was compelled to demand of Americans--and for their sakes, after all--a generosity, a clarity, and a nobility which they did not dream of demanding of themselves. Part of the error was irreducible, in that the marchers and petitioners were forced to suppose the existence of an entity which, when the chips were down, could not be located--i.e., there are no American people yet: but to this speculation (or desperate hope) we shall presently return.

The Devil Finds Work

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This book interweaves Baldwin’s experience of American films with his search for the roots of injustice. Baldwin scatters fragments of half-understood images from his childhood, and then draws them closer and closer together, until they are cinched around the reader.

From the book:

Joan Crawford's straight, narrow, and lonely back. We are following her through the corridors of a moving train. She is looking for someone, or is she is trying to escape from someone. She is eventually intercepted by, I think, Clark Gable.

I am fascinated by the movement on, and of, the screen, that movement which is something like the heaving and swelling of the sea (though I have not yet been to the sea): and which is also something like the light which moves on, and especially beneath, the water.

I am about seven. I am with my mother, or my aunt. The movie is Dance, Fools, Dance.

The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings

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This includes his 1964 essay “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” which connects his search for an English that reflects him with that other post-colonial writers:

My quarrel with the English language has been that the language reflected none of my experience. But now I began to see the matter in quite another way. If the language was not my own, it might be the fault of the language; but it might also be my fault. Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it. If this were so, then it might be made to bear the burden of my experience if I could find the stamina to challenge it, and me, to such a test.


Marcia Lynx Qualey is a court poet, ghost writer, and itinerant scribe with a focus on Arab and Arabic literatures. Writes for The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, Deutchse Welle, The National, and ... Show More

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