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?