Figure out why you needed to have a N-, and we’ll figure out how to move towards change

After watching “I Am Not Your Negro” and reading “The Fire Next Time,” the motif of confronting the past, and the truth about America and oneself as a necessary step towards change, is one that stays with me. As a black woman, I always saw the race problem in America as White people not being willing or ready to “accept” black people as equals. While being of the target of hatred is exhausting and traumatic among other things, I have never internalized it as a problem with myself. I have not succumbed to destruction by believing I am “what the white world calls a nigger”(Baldwin 9). I have always believed it was a problem with white people, who for some deluded reason, hate black people. “I Am Not Your Negro” and “The Fire Inside” drives home the point that, people, particularly white people, have to face the past and themselves or hope for future change is improbable.

“I Am Not Your Negro” reinforces this point in numerous ways. Baldwin’s words and sentiments, explain that story of America is one designed to convince us that no crime has been committed in its conception and thus turns something that is nothing short of a massacre, into legend. America’s history is a lie of pretended humanism, that offers the deception that the racist history of this country is justifiable. The Negro problem is the means of providing this justification, and crucial to safeguard white purity, and soothe a guilty and constrained white imagination. White Americans invented the negro as an inferior entity and has based their entire ideology and moral justification on the idea that the negro is in fact inferior, not human,  and deserves to be treated as such. To protect that delusion, cowardice, immaturity, and blindness has been woven into the American fabric as virtues that attempt to convince people of baseless ideas. Examples of these ideas include: black people have no reason to be bitter, white people are innocent of any atrocities, America is a place of humanity and life is without issue here, Racism doesn’t exist anymore. Living and accepting delusion (I cannot find an appropriate synonym) in this way, covering up and ignoring the reality of the past, does not inspire change. In the film Baldwin says, “What white people have to do, is try to find out in their hearts why it was necessary for them to have a nigger in the first place. Because I am not a nigger. I’m a man. If I’m not the nigger here, and if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it is able to ask that question.” This quote brings to light for me the fact that, the goal is not for white people to be ready to accept black people,  but for white people to accept themselves. To face the realities of history, of their own prejudices and dispositions, in order for any change and reconciliation to be possible.

To face the realities of ones own  prejudice and harmful dispositions. however, is not something that is appealing, or something that people want to do, upholding the idea that black people are inferior has destroyed and is “destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and [many white people] do not know it and do not want to know it” (Baldwin 10). It is not easy to be released from a history has needed to uphold the idea that black makes a human inferior to white. Baldwin explains that many white people know better, but find it difficult to act on what they know because,

“To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds 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 shining 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” (Baldwin 12)

To reconcile an integrated future with black people, white people would have to dismantle the foundations of their identity and country. Only then can change be a possibility. But again, to this day, some people are not ready to confront these realities, thus racism and fire persists. Also important, though not presented as the most glaring priority, is the need for white people and black people to confront the reality that we need each other if we are to exist successfully in this country. Baldwin offers the knowledge that “we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation—if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women” (Baldwin 59).

Both the film and the book had me thinking about the narrative of a nation, especially one as interdependent as America. Whose story is at the forefront? What are the ethical implications of painting a moral history for a country rooted in hatred, barbarianism, and delusion? How concerned is America with the truth? How do we negotiate the fictions American identity is founded on?

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5 thoughts on “Figure out why you needed to have a N-, and we’ll figure out how to move towards change

  1. Cheyanne, this is such an apt post that focuses on the pivotal elements of Baldwin’s argument, and Peck’s recontextualization of his argument. I appreciate how you articulated the myth of white purity and innocence preserved in American history and ideologies through the systemic dehumanization of Black Americans. You write, “Baldwin’s words and sentiments, explain that story of America is one designed to convince us that no crime has been committed in its conception and thus turns something that is nothing short of a massacre, into legend. America’s history is a lie of pretended humanism, that offers the deception that the racist history of this country is justifiable. The Negro problem is the means of providing this justification, and crucial to safeguard white purity, and soothe a guilty and constrained white imagination.”

    Additionally, as you’ve pointed out, it is vital to question the narrative of this nation. I really like that phrase, “the narrative of a nation,” because it exposes American ideology as some singular rendering of bias rather than an overarching truth. Instead, it calls attention to the efforts to keep this narrative upfront to preserve ideologies rooted in white supremacy. You further this by asking the following questions: “What are the ethical implications of painting a moral history for a country rooted in hatred, barbarianism, and delusion? How concerned is America with the truth? How do we negotiate the fictions American identity is founded on?” I think we can interrogate these points with current cultural forces and movements. After all, popular culture is an attempt to represent or reconstruct some form of a nation’s narrative. Some things that come to mind are the successes and failures of representational films/series; performative activism on social media; school curriculum and core assigned readings.

  2. I enjoyed reading your probing thoughts about the complex social dynamics Baldwin analyzes here – “interdependent” is a good word to describe them (and his views of them). The quotes you pulled were particularly illuminating for me. Looking at those last two passages side by side, I realize that in one Baldwin speaks of “the loss of their identity” while in the other he says “achieve our identity”. It seems that the former is a necessary prerequisite for the latter – a white identity built on delusion (no need for synonyms there!) must be dissolved before anything further can happen. That shift from “their” to “our” also reminded me how shape-shifty Baldwin can be with his personal pronouns. They’s and we’s and you’s keep his addressees in flux, implicitly dramatizing the existential tensions of division alongside the possibilities of an honest unity. (I guess most of the you’s in this essay are from the first section and technically address his nephew rather than any reader, but your quote from the film is a good example of how powerfully he can wield that direct address, how “they” morphing into “you” can put certain readers/viewers on the spot). Reading that last quote where he defines the we as “the black and white” was personally surprising to me because of how closely it resembles, and perhaps anticipates, his rallying cry near the very end of the essay, “If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others — do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world”(346-347*). I had always thought of that quote as a rare moment where he consciously defines his audience, never realizing that just four pages prior he says very much the same thing, with slightly less verbiage. (Not to knock the verbiage; all those commas and em dashes certainly build quite a soaring crescendo). Anyway, I guess those are some thoughts about a few of the tools Baldwin uses to “negotiate the fictions American identity is founded on”.

    *pagination refers to Baldwin’s Collected Essays, ed. Toni Morrison

  3. Your post definitely gets to the heart of the struggle Baldwin outlines in The Fire Next Time; Americans, specifically white Americans, need to confront the past or else the future of the country is bleak and getting bleaker all the time. Raoul Peck really drives this point home by juxtaposing all of this against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter protests across the country: it’s clear that audiences did not heed Baldwin’s warnings then, and now the country is continuing to face the consequences. I think Peck that highlights one of the biggest lies that Americans buy about the state of racism in the country, the lie that this is all very old stuff, that racism is a thing of the past, in a very subtle way by showing some photographs in black and white, and then photographs from the same era in color. Near the end of the film as Baldwin finishes speaking, as he steps down, the video changes from black and white to color, dispelling the myth that all of these conversations about race are old; they’re recent enough to have been recorded on color film.

    A lot of books about the history of racism in the United States, and antiracism books about the current state of the country and how we got here, tend to emphasize that the United States was given an opportunity after the Civil War to build the country back in a more equitable way and to actually work towards a better future for everyone, but that opportunity was completely squandered, and instead it laid the groundwork for a lot of racist institutions and policies we’re still reckoning with and trying to reform or dismantle. The point being that again the country is facing another opportunity to actually make important and necessary change that will ultimately improve everyone’s lives, but again because Americans are lacking the courage to look at the past without making excuses for it and without pretending it wasn’t so bad, the rest of the country can’t move forward and the speed of progress keeps on grinding down to a near standstill. It’s pretty disheartening to read The Fire Next Time and still see modern day applications, and Peck does this in his film pretty impressively. What’s new is old and what’s old is new.

  4. Amazing post and insight to the internal struggle that permeates both works centered around James Baldwin and his fight. The struggles and pain presented in both the book and movie is adequately summed up and analyzed to show that the change to the nation is one that doesn’t just lie in one group but multiple. For black people to do better, white people have to face themselves and do more in order to make change. That would mean to admonish aspects of historical tradition they have (as you said). Doing so means to lay a new groundwork that moves everyone forward not just one ethnic group. As said by Baldwin “Black history is American History” to take away from such is deny the history that many wish to “preserve”. It then becomes not only hypocritical but tone-deaf to not realize some of the arguments Baldwin makes in the film and text.
    I really resonate with your thoughts on the “narrative of the nation”, if Baldwin’s works can be summed up (partially) then this would be the statement to help take the cake. The fight against racism and injustices is something that presides in the text ad. The idea of it being generational is emphasized in the film (directed by Raoul Peck). Regardless the question becomes, with all that is going on what is the narrative and who is listening/paying attention?

  5. Cheyanne, this post is so well-written. Although I cannot feel how you feel as a person of color, being white myself, I definitely understand you emotions. You interpreted Baldwin correctly and can make the reader empathize as well. I really liked the final paragraph you wrote, particularly the part where you said “Whose story is at the forefront?” It is so sad to see such differences and separation in the 21st century and even crazier to see how this nation cannot move past racism and separation of racism, when it all really did start with white explorers coming into America and taking land and then importing African-Americans. It’s wild, for lack of a better word. You also stated that we need to think of the narrative of the nation because of how things get portrayed both in films and in literature. These things, especially in social media, lay the foundations for how people think and view these parts of history, which are still ever-present.

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