In “Down at the Cross” and in the film I Am Not Your Negro, there is a complex discussion and presentation of what it is like being Black in a predominantly white society. In “Down at the Cross” especially, there is a clearer image of Baldwin’s views and critiques of white supremacy concerning “the Negro Problem.” When Baldwin began to explore the Black and Negro experience and the issues of race and identity in the United States he noticed that Black people were openly weeping about the oppression they faced yet they were “unable to say what it was that oppressed them except that they knew it was ‘the man’ – the white man” (Baldwin p. 298). Baldwin called this a “terrifying single-mindedness” (Baldwin p. 297). I believe using the phrase “terrifying single-mindedness” underscores the depth of Black people’s feelings about their inferiority and what it is like to live in a world that debases them. It suggests that the determination and intense focus of the Black community to combat their white oppressors is frightening and extreme and to Baldwin, very unsettling.
In this critique of the way Black people navigate white positions and power in America, I found that Baldwin was denouncing the Black experience by suggesting that their intense focus on achieving their goal and liberation was terrifying. The white culture and white superiority that dominates society has and continues to limit opportunities for many Black Americans. Whites reinforce and perpetuate the stereotypes and disadvantages of Black Americans by not only basing their identity on black inferiority but by maintaining their power and superior societal position so that Blacks cannot reach their status and so that they can maintain theirs. There are so many other things related to issues of race in the United States that support this argument. For example, as was shown in the film I Am Not Your Negro, the killings and beatings of Black men, police brutality, intentional discrimination and segregation, and more which all persist today. I feel as though this is more terrifying than the “single-mindedness” of Black people seeking equality and liberation.
I cannot agree with Baldwin’s view of Black individuals operating on the knowledge that it was the white man who was oppressing them as a “terrifying single-mindedness” (Baldwin p. 297). White people have treated Blacks horribly, and Baldwin has demonstrated this therefore in my eyes, I think Black people are justified in separating themselves from the whites that have separated themselves from them for so long and have the right to be so extreme in their goal to seek liberation and equality from the white oppressors. While the importance of being partial is definitely a great thing for society, which Baldwin appears to be stressing in “Down at the Cross”, promoting the idea to the Black community that what they feel about the white man, their desire to separate, and their unwavering dedication to freeing themselves from their oppressors are single-minded and terrifying, in my opinion, diminishes their experiences and their objective.
As I flip through the Chicago news channels all reporting on the murder of a 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy stabbed 26 times by his landlord amidst the outbreak of war in Israel all while I am sitting on my couch during fall break, I cannot help but be reminded of James Baldwin’s warning to America nearly 50 years ago. While he focused primarily on white and Black race relations, what I perceive to be his greater concern regarding a lack of love in our country closely relates to this horrific event and other hate crimes like it. I believe Baldwin is undoubtedly timeless in his writing style; however, he has also been made timeless (and arguably unfortunately so) by the content of his writing. By this I mean that the issues and goals Baldwin enunciated in his various works are far from achieved, namely his call for some form of national love and brotherhood that transcends all violence and hate.
I found the parallels between contemporary America and the America Baldwin wrote about to be made most evident by the existentialist theme of “Down at the Cross” and I Am Not Your Negro. In “Down at the Cross,” Baldwin argues, “He [the Black man] is the key figure in his country, and the American future is precisely as bright or dark as his… Hence the question: Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” (340). In a similar vein, he later writes, “In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation” (342). In both of these statements, Baldwin contextualizes the problem of racial bigotry in a greater conversation about nation-building, contending that the strength and longevity of our country, currently a “burning house,” as a whole hinge upon our ability to end the discrimination and hate towards Black Americans. Relatedly, in I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin’s efforts to connect the future of our nation with the relationship between Black and white Americans become even clearer. In the film he is quoted saying “No kingdom can maintain itself by force alone.” Though this statement was used in direct reference to police brutality, another issue emerging from America’s problem with race that persists today, Baldwin’s underlying call for love and existentialist concern for the future of his country, said “kingdom,” shine through. That is, the current violent path America is on is not sustainable; something else must be present to save our country– love. In sum, both of these works depict America at a crossroads, one that it has not entirely departed from today. For this reason, and despite this dreary picture of America, Baldwin’s words of hope, “If we do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world,” also still ring true today should we choose to finally heed them (347).
The film I Am Not Your Negro brings to life Baldwin’s thirty page manuscript of what was going to be his work titled, “Remember This House”. Baldwin’s narration of the work throughout the documentary humanizes the text and complements the visuals. There are several noteworthy moments in the film that deserve attention. The first is Baldwin’s commentary on how black people are portrayed in the media in comparison to white people, specifically film. Baldwin describes how white men are portrayed as heroes, whereas black men are depicted as criminals. He states that he “despised and feared those heroes” and that “his countrymen were his enemies.” Another notable moment is when Baldwin separates himself from the Black Panther Party, the church, and the NAACP. His reasons being that he doesn’t think all white people are evil, the church doesn’t practice the commandment of loving thy neighbor, and that the NAACP enforces classism among the black community. By distinguishing himself apart from these groups he establishes himself as a self-fashioning individual that is not easily polarized by the media as Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr. were. After reading Go Tell It On the Mountain, it is clear that Baldwin wants to separate himself from hate that is fueling America during the time of the Civil Rights Movement. Despite this being an effect of his moral compass, Baldwin’s desire to not subscribe to any of those groups was a marketable choice. It made him palatable to a white audience, which is why I think we see him in several talk shows. Another significant part of the film is when he describes himself as the “The Great Black Hope of the Great White Father.” His criticism of his role as an influential figure of black hope amongst the assassinations of Malcolm X, King, and Levers, is substantial because it allows the viewer to realize that despite movements for anti-racism, America was still extremely racist. It didn’t matter if Baldwin was “The Great Black Hope of the Great White Father” if countless black people were still being killed.