In a televised interview with psychologist Dr. Kenneth Bancroft Clark, writer and social critic James Baldwin appeared in “The Negro and the American Promise,” alongside then-polarizing civil rights activists Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Minister Malcolm X to discuss race relations in the U.S. The New York Times would later describe the 1963 broadcast (itself the product of Boston public television producer Henry Morgenthau III) and particularly Baldwin’s segment, as “ television experience that seared the conscience.” Given the zeitgeist, whilst viewing Raoul Peck’s climacteric 2016 documentary film “I Am Not Your Negro,” the heart-pounding anxiety in Baldwin’s words in that interview seem to reverberate like a tzar bomba slamming in an echo chamber.
“That’s part of the dilemma of being an American Negro; that one is a little bit colored and a little bit white, and not only in physical terms but in the head and in the heart, and there are days — this is one of them — when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it. How, precisely, are you going to reconcile yourself to your situation here and how you are going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel, white majority, that you are here? And to be here means that you can’t be anywhere else,” Baldwin said. He continued. “I’m terrified at the moral apathy — the death of the heart which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long, that they really don’t think I’m human. I base this on their conduct, not on what they say, and this means that they have become, in themselves, moral monsters. It’s a terrible indictment — I mean every word I say.”
What makes Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” an essential viewing on par with, say, “13th,” Ava Duvernay’s incendiary documentary about race and mass incarceration? Based on 30 completed pages of James Baldwin’s final, unfinished manuscript Remember This House and narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson, Peck’s award-winning documentary truly shines when there is more emphasis on archival footage than the words of Baldwin’s partial script due to his death from stomach cancer at 63 in 1987. Peck spends considerable time highlighting celebrities and literary luminaries of the time who were active during the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1954–1968). Including found footage of glitterati such as Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis, Lorraine Hansberry, and diverging political activists like Charlton Heston. In his directing, Peck appears to make a clear and concise distinction between artists of the 1960s and the contemporary artists of the iPhone generation. But that’s about it. The film progresses at a crawl when it delves into poetics, as Samuel L. Jackson tries to capture the color of the fallen literary titan.
That is in no way a kiss-off of one America’s Greatest Writers, nor of Mr. Jackson’s work as an actor, but a reflection on Peck, whose work on the film inspires more questions of interest around Baldwin, his politics, and his bibliography. Footage where Baldwin takes center stage and articulates American imperialism is more appealing and more profound than Peck’s reimagining of Baldwin’s last words. But perhaps, that’s unfair. After all, Baldwin casts a tall shadow. Marking the 30th Anniversary of his death, Baldwin’s influence continues to towers over the Afropunk collective, the Black Lives Matter international activist movement, and what appears to be a revival of the Black Arts Movement via TV, film, modern art and of course, on the proscenium stage.
In Fall 2016, his influence saturated the DNA of genre-bending musicals like Stew’s The Total Bent (which he co-wrote with Heidi Rodewald and his band, The Negro Problem) and Party People by UNIVERSES, both performed at the Public Theater. Shortly after those shows ended, the year was capped off with Can I Get a Witness? The Gospel of James Baldwin by neo-soul progenitor Meshell Ndegeocello’s Afrofuturistic concert-sermon at Harlem Stages. Each one of these gems tackled contemporary issues (Trump and a divided Capitol Hill, Standing Rock, refugee crisis, domestic terror) while grappling with the state of white America, race relations, anti-blackness and the nature of protest and revolt. In a way, Baldwin’s body of work became what he accused militant Pan-African human rights activist Malcolm X of doing during that interview with Dr. Kenneth Bancroft Clark: “He corroborates their reality; he tells them that they really exist. You know?”
It’s no wonder why black songwriter-storytellers, especially those who have infiltrated the New York City theatre constituency and openly challenge the white hegemony of musical theatre, worship at the altar of Baldwin. The politics of his message—at odds with the militancy of Huey P. Newton and The Black Panthers, the political boondoggle that plagued Julian Bond and John Lewis of SNCC, the black supremacy movement of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam—is an earth-shattering, life-and-death kiss-off to the whole establishment while appraising the perils of every black life in a system engineered and fueled by America’s white supremacist patriarchy.
Baldwin’s worldview was equidistant of two polarizing ideological extremes: A pariah of the integrationist wing of the Civil Rights movement, Baldwin believed in a unified America and agreed in the establishing peace through the nonviolent resistance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his SCLC disciples. But he also believed equally in the deep-seated Pan-African radicalism of Malcolm X. Both incensed black intellectuals, unlike King, Baldwin and Malcolm X were unwilling to were to wait for white society to “solve” The Negro Question, and felt the dominant white culture in America was too toxic for black people and other people of color, considering the effects of systemic and institutional racism. In “The Fire Next Time,” his nonfiction objet d’art, Baldwin wrote: “Things are as bad as the Muslims say they are — in fact, they are worse… There is no reason that black men should be expected to be more patient, more forbearing, more farseeing than whites; indeed, quite the contrary.”
For newcomers to the work of Baldwin, this may seem disorienting and discombobulating, but that is also what elevates his writing into the upper echelons of American writers. When L.A. musician Mark Stewart, better known as Stew, penned his genre-bending semi-autobiographical 2008 rock musical Passing Strange—produced with the support of the Sundance Institute and The Public Theater—the book was purely inspired by Baldwin’s tesseract-warping writing style. Not only did the musical references the New Negro of the Harlem Renaissance, but one its central motifs involved the praise of black artists like Baldwin and Josephine Baker, who expatriated to Paris, France. Shortly after the closing of The Total Bent, in September 2016, Stew reported that he has begun to workshop a song cycle, Notes of a Native Song, inspired by Baldwin’s similarly titled 1955 non-fiction novel.
Other writers have also felt the effects of iconic writer: Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks studied under Baldwin, who encouraged her to write for the stage and described her as “an utterly astounding and beautiful creature who may become one of the most valuable artists of our time.” Ending her post as a Residency One playwright for Signature Theatre Company this year, the various productions cherry-picked from Parks’ extensive bibliography echo Baldwin’s poetics. There’s also director-playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah. In Dr. Lynette Goddard’s “Contemporary Black British Playwrights: Margins to Mainstream,” Kwei-Armah explained that his plays mirror the ‘diasporic, black politics” influenced by the writings of Amiri Baraka and Baldwin. Journalist-author Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2015 book, Between the World and Me, was inspired directly by Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and lest we forget, the same book of essays also inspired the Fire This Time Festival, which has become a launch pad for early-career playwrights of African and African-American descent. Diverse artists are also taking inspiration from Baldwin, like Pulitzer-winning Puerto Rican playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the book for the musical Miss You Like Hell, with help of her outrage in the post-election period and Baldwin’s poetry.
In a neo-reactionary zeitgeist contaminated by Breitbart News-quoting white nationalist right-wing populists, and the ever-present tinges of anti-blackness, xenophobia, and fear of immigrants, anti-feminism, proliferating ableism, and rampant homophobia and transphobia, Baldwin’s work may be the beacon of a revival of not only a Black Arts Movement but a war cry for all diverse artists. To put it simply, Baldwin was a futurist. His genius—highlighted by unpatrolled mordant wit, piquant rue, spill-the-tea élan and unparalleled black boy voodoo—is a master class of artistry; regardless of context, his writing accentuates and deliberates not only the struggle of black people but all of the colonized English-speaking nations of the world. Woah!
Contemporary artists have big shoes to fill. But given the state of the nation, we’re in good hands. Rest in power, Mr. Baldwin.