***A spoiler free semi-review***
As a student of black literature, I readily devoured the work of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Jamaica Kincaid, Ralph Ellison and others throughout my college career. My favorite texts were those that gave me a glimpse inside of life for blacks in the antebellum South, the struggles and victories so much sweeter for me, a privileged young biracial college student, born and raised in the liberal cradle of Southern California. I came across “Sonny’s Blues” in one of my American lit textbooks, and I, an avid reader, read it in class, during a lecture, ignoring the professor at the front of the room, in order to glean a lesson from one of my intellectual ancestors, James Baldwin.
Black literature is never an easy read, but something about Baldwin’s work has always caused my soul to ache. His naked portrayal of black life before (during, after) the Civil Rights Movement brings tears to my eyes, while his honest criticism of black communities, white oppressors and an American society that perpetuates racism continues to push me to question the system.
I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary film written by James Baldwin, is currently playing in limited theatres across the country. Baldwin, a gay, black, intellectual, had no fear of the system, and this movie gives voice to some of his most intriguing and controversial conversations, studying black life in America through the eyes of a black man. The original 50 pages of notes written by Baldwin have been transformed into a two hour film that will cause audiences to question the honesty behind the American dream and wonder what black American will have to do in order to live that dream alongside our white brothers and sisters.
After watching the film (I am writing this only an hour after leaving the theatre with tears in my eyes), I am fraught with emotions. I am incensed and full of rage for my black ancestors, embarrassed and confused by the actions of my white ancestors. I feel joy and pride, fear and sadness, all of it culminating in questions that revolve around my child and the world she will inherit. To most, social structures, political systems, the moral standard, seem practically impossible to infiltrate, and there is a real urge to ignore and devalue the struggle of others, especially if those struggles do not directly affect us. If I’m not calling my local congressman, donating money to the NAACP or attending social justice rallies, what am I doing to help facilitate change?
Sometimes it’s difficult to know how to help, but this film gives me hope. We all have the ability to exude empathy, to learn, to support, to understand, to educate. We can each be a witness, a voice raised above the hate, using the skills we have to help the world be a better place. It may sound cliche, and it is, in the simplest sense. In a more complex sense, though, this means doing the research so that my freshman college students learn about the prison industrial complex and the racist systems that operate in our country that make it so difficult to be a black man in the prison system. This means discussing feminism and the stereotypes that surround it. This means forcing my most conservative students to debate the opposite side of their beliefs and argue for immigrant and refugee rights, because it causes them to think outside of themselves and see a different point of view. This is what I’m good at, so this is what I can do. As Baldwin writes in this film, it’s time to return home to pay dues. I cannot sit back and pretend that these issues in our country, issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, do not exist, and neither can you. I will do what I must to help facilitate change. I will be a witness.
xoxo C. Diva