When the American dream turns into the perfect nightmare
I saw the film I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO on the 27th April 2017 in a cinema at Leicester Square, in London. A long documentary on the sad, sad, sad story of being a black man in America. The accurate name, United States, becomes almost a misnomer, so disunited seems this relatively young country of four hundred years. The film is based upon the writings, interviews and live conferences given by the African-American playwright, James Baldwin. His best-known play is perhaps The Amen Corner. But Baldwin was more than a playwright: a poet, novelist, author of essays, social critic. The film makes repeated references to his lectures in British universities in the 1960s-70s. Born in 1924, Baldwin died in 1987. Thirty years later, he still rings the alarm bell. The screen star Samuel Jackson lends his voice to this wake-up call in a commercial cinema where one usually goes for fiction and leisure.
A number of factors give fresh relevance to this film. In a dangerous polarisation of American politics since the last elections, an unpredictable president appeals to the basic instincts of his citizens. He has promised to make ‘America great again’. Does ‘again’ refer to a past when systemic bullying and racial domination had been the norm? Doesn’t ‘great’ mean superior? Do the voters of this president care more about distant North Korea than their old inner dark-skinned enemy? One feels there is a visceral reactionary surge to purge America of outgoing black American president. Ongoing racial outbursts across America leading to the need to affirm ‘Black Lives Matter’ are yet another sign of a worsening state of affairs. Across the globe, there is a growing climate of violence and racial intolerance. Is a world in crisis reopening old wounds?
Physically, James Baldwin reminds me of a black Picasso. Baldwin’s writing and stream of consciousness are a reminder that there is a gaping wound at the heart of American society. Generations have failed to bridge the white and black divide. Baldwin being long dead, the producers of the film issue a warning: the old racial issue may come back to haunt America and impact upon our times. Baldwin tried to escape from the harsh realities of his unfair society. He moved to Paris and engaged with Britain on an intellectual level. The characters of his plays took his views to a wider audience. Different writing genres to express his concerns were never affective enough. So, he voiced his views in lectures and on TV shows. Sadly, the urgency he felt in his lifetime has only become more pressing in the 21st century. Hence, this film screened in London.
Events unfolding kept catching up with, sometimes reversing, the civilising process. And so, the peace project of Dr Martin Luther King failed tragically. Conversion to Islam and the violence option of Malcom X ended in assassination. Progressive, tolerant political leaders like the Kennedy brothers were gunned down. Religion remains more concerned with the next world, almost avoiding the cruel reality in the US. Show business, the star system or sports elitism have remained corridors of exception that confirmed the rule: the black man can only expect hate in his own country. Hollywood is akin sticking plaster over a bleeding wound. Unfortunately, the major outcome of electing a black president has hardly been therapeutic.
So, what can be done? And who is going to do it? Baldwin despairs that equality is proving unattainable. ‘Forget the rights of the black man, he pleads, I am only trying to be a man’. That is being denied to him. And to many like him. In and out of America. The film offers no solution. Hence the deep feeling of pessimism as you leave the show.
In more than one way, I am able to empathise with Baldwin. For one thing, I share with him the recourse to drama as a powerful tool to educate adults and clarify issues so society may take charge. What I also realise is the tough responsibility of poets and dramatists who need to make sense out of the conflicting forces at play within increasingly complex societies. Such a responsibility sometimes involves self-imposed exile for the black artist… Events surrounding the assassination of Martin L. King in 1968 have impacted upon my own sense of identity due to the fact that, aged 20, I was a guest to Washington DC, Atlanta and Harlem in 1970. Do I need to mention that my nephew and nieces are American citizens from their American father and my elder sister?
In racially polarised America, says Baldwin, the white man is moved by terror. What a damning verdict at the age of global terrorism! In that case, who exactly is the other, in the Sartrian infernal view of our world? Reaction or contagion, after centuries of injustice, the black man in America is in turn being moved by rage. Acknowledging that reconciliation has failed and the fact that guns are aplenty do not bode well for anybody. That the American dream keeps turning into the perfect nightmare affects both the present and the future of all Americans. And because America leads the world in more than one way, the reckoning is likely to have global repercussions.
It will affect you and me.
PS: Since I wrote this paper, my nephew Prescott Hendrix died aged 36 in October 2017, in predictable circumstances for a handsome young black man in Detroit, Michigan. In 2020, the assassination of George Floyd in Minneapolis has spread shivers across the globe. ‘Black Lives Matter’ has become a rallying cry on the streets of America and major capital cities of the planet.
Daniel Labonne is the author of the book Empowering the Performer (Tamare House. London). He has been the artistic director of the Samuel Coleridge Taylor Society in London. A playwright, author and founder of FACE (Foundation for Arts Creativity & Exchange)