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Book Review: I Am Not Your Negro: A Companion Edition to the Documentary Film Directed by Raoul Peck

Hailey Spaeth

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By Dr. Yven Destin, Faculty Contributor

I Am Not Your Negro is a book about the racist culture of America with some detail on how it got that way. The title helps explain the whole point of the book: I Am Not Your Negro seems to be a response to racists who, Baldwin believes, invented the N-word to justify the lives of Europeans who first felt captive in a foreign land called America, and therefore chose to become white to make sense of their reality (pp. 55). By “choosing to be white,” Baldwin means ‘race’ became a convenient way for early Americans to separate people from one another and to solidify their power and authority over other groups. Since then, America has evolved into a culture of people who either staunchly refuse or blissfully ignore this fact of life (i.e., that racism helps avoid the realities of living with Black people) and would otherwise prefer a fantasy world, one of simplicity, where Blacks would readily cooperate with whites. So, the title was probably supposed to read I Am Not Your N-word—I will not be your excuse to justify your fear to deal with me, a Black person—I, your brother or sister whom you neglected for so long. We are part of the same family.

Baldwin uses his interactions with civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. to support his main point in an interesting way. He refers to these men not so much as to write a biographical piece of each man’s life as one might think. He uses them (their goals and intimate connections to him) to therapeutically(?) help him reevaluate the past, present, and future of America and its Black population. Through this “journey” as he called it, Baldwin interrogates and exposes this American culture for what it truly is: a fantasy in which entertainers, scholars, even educators are complicit in fostering the innocence of white people.
So, was he persuasive?—which is an odd question to ask about such a historic figure and whose social criticisms of American society are readily accepted by many. Persuasive he was! He offered intelligent arguments and vivid descriptions of people who struggle with the “race problem.” He deconstructed familiar American stories and themes to reveal a racist agenda. Moreover, his arguments can be supported by countless deconstructionist scholars who have emerged since his passing in 1987. But my question of persuasiveness is an important one, because I Am Not Your Negro was based on the unfinished writings of James Baldwin. It is very possible that Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck and his team who compiled Baldwin’s notes, letters, and correspondents into a coherent manuscript could have killed the great author’s argument—which in the end may not have been the intended argument of Baldwin’s unfinished book originally titled Remember This House. As Peck explained from the start, he “hope not to have betrayed the man who accompanied [him] from very early on, every day of [his] life.” Peck reassures the audience that the words they read are in fact those of the great social critic. He made the slightest of changes to Baldwin’s words, corrections to people’s names for instance. Peck’s selection of illustrations in the book support Baldwin’s ideas and add to the coherence of his arguments.

However, the book lacks in one regard. There is no expressed language about how to read this book. It should be clear that I Am Not Your Negro is a book version of the major motion picture. I am led to believe that this is the script version of the film, but it doesn’t read like one. There are no scripts for identifying when the narrator speaks. And scripts that identify the speaking roles of other characters are pulled from actual transcripts from interviews and public speeches unrelated to the book. Readers are left thinking these transcripts are provided as primary evidence to support Baldwin’s main points in the text, not scripts of characters who play essential roles in a movie plot. I am also led to believe like other reviewers that the book is a companion text to the motion picture. But there is no explanation about its relation to the film. I think it is a script since a page is dedicated to “Credits” and actor Samuel L. Jackson is credited for his narration. Notwithstanding these missing details, they do not detract from Baldwin’s powerful message with the aid of Peck.

So why read this book? I think it’s important for readers to hear from a person who attempted to re-evaluate his understanding of, as Baldwin described, an America that doesn’t know what to do with its Black population. Baldwin was intimately connected to civil rights leaders beyond the three focused here. Since Baldwin was born before Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin and died long after they did, he is in a unique position to assess the results of the Civil Rights Movement and its impact on America’s race relations. That fact alone should be reason enough to read this book. Without the help of Raoul Peck, Baldwin’s assessment would not have seen the light of day. And to that, I must thank my fellow Haitian Raoul Peck for completing Baldwin’s book.
Merci beaucoup!

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Book Review: I Am Not Your Negro: A Companion Edition to the Documentary Film Directed by Raoul Peck