James Baldwin and the Meaning of Whiteness
By Chris Hedges
Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” is one of the finest documentaries I’ve ever seen. The film powerfully illustrates, through James Baldwin’s prophetic work, that the insanity now gripping the US is an inevitable consequence of whites’ steadfast failure to confront where they came from, who they are, and the lies and myths they use to mask past and present crimes.
If you haven’t read Baldwin you probably don’t fully understand [the USA]. History “is not the past,” the film quotes Baldwin as saying. “History is the present. We carry our history with us. To think otherwise is criminal.”
The script is taken from Baldwin’s notes, essays, interviews and letters, with some of the words delivered in Baldwin’s voice from audio recordings and televised footage, some of them in readings by actor Samuel L. Jackson. [Ed. note: The film is framed by Baldwin’s essay and meditation on the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.] [What] make[s] the film so moving …is Peck’s understanding of the core of Baldwin’s message to the white “race,” a message that’s vital as we struggle with an overt racist as president, mass incarceration, poverty gripping half the country and militarized police murdering unarmed Black men and women.
Whiteness is a dangerous concept. It’s not about skin color. It’s not even about race. It’s about the willful blindness used to justify white supremacy. It’s about using moral rhetoric to defend exploitation, racism, mass murder, terror and the crimes of empire.
“The Negro has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that [they] are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that [they] have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that [their] men are the world’s most direct and virile, that [their] women are pure,” Baldwin wrote.
“Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents—or, anyway, mothers—know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred. The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.”[The US] was founded on the genocidal slaughter of indigenous people and the holocaust of slavery. It was also founded on an imagined moral superiority and purity. The fact that dominance of others came, and still comes, from unrestrained acts of violence is washed out of the national narrative. The steadfast failure to face the truth, Baldwin warned, perpetuates a kind of collective psychosis.
Unable to face the truth, white…s destroy their capacity for self-reflection and self-criticism. Those who imbibe the myth of whiteness externalize evil—their own evil—onto their victims. Racism, Baldwin understood, is driven by moral bankruptcy, narcissism, an inner loneliness and latent guilt. Donald Trump and most of those around him exhibit all of these characteristics.
“If Americans were not so terrified of their private selves, they would never have needed to invent and could never have become so dependent on what they still call ‘the Negro problem,’ ” Baldwin wrote. “This problem, which they invented in order to safeguard their purity, has made of them criminals and monsters, and it is destroying them; and this not from anything blacks may or may not be doing but because of the role a guilty and constricted white imagination has assigned to the blacks.”
“People pay for what they do, and, still more for what they allowed themselves to become,” Baldwin went on. “And they pay for it very simply by the lives they lead. The crucial thing, here, is that the sum of these individual abdications menaces life all over the world. For, in the generality, as social and moral and political and sexual entities, white Americans are probably the sickest and certainly the most dangerous people, of any color, to be found in the world today.”
Footage in the Peck documentary of past murder cases including the 1955 lynching of the 14-year-old Emmett Till is interspersed with the modern-day lynching of young black men such as Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. Images of white supremacist parades from the 1960s, with young men carrying signs proclaiming “Keep America White,” shift directly to footage of Ferguson, Mo.
The film begins with Baldwin’s 1957 return from France, where he’d been living for almost a decade. He comes back to join the nascent civil rights movement. He spoke and participated in hundreds of events for the Congress of Racial Equality and SNCC. Martin Luther King Jr.’s SCLC, however, largely held him at arm’s length. His words made King’s Northern white liberal supporters uncomfortable. Baldwin was supposed to speak at the 1963 March on Washington, but King and other leaders replaced him with Burt Lancaster. Baldwin steadfastly refused to be anyone’s “negro.”
In his book “The Devil Finds Work” he pits Hollywood’s vision of race against the reality. The Peck documentary shows clips from films Baldwin critiqued in the book including “The Birth of a Nation” (a 1915 movie Baldwin called “an elaborate justification of mass murder”), “Dance, Fools, Dance” (1931), “King Kong” (1933), “Imitation of Life” (1934), “Stagecoach” (1939), “The Defiant Ones” (1958), “A Raisin in the Sun” (1961) and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967). Baldwin pointed to the racial stereotypes in popular culture that sustain the lie of whiteness.
These Hollywood stereotypes, Baldwin knew, existed as foils for an imagined white purity, decency and innocence. They buttressed the myth of a nation devoted to the ideals of justice, liberty and democracy, [in which] racism was a form of benevolence. Baldwin warned that not facing these lies would see America consume itself.
Nearly all African-Americans carry white blood, usually the result of rape by white men. White slaveholders sold mixed-race children—their own children—into slavery. African-Americans, Baldwin wrote, are the “bastard” children of white America. “The truth is this country does not know what to do with its black population,” he said. “Americans can’t face the fact that I am flesh of their flesh.”
White supremacy is not defined, he wrote, by intelligence or virtue. The white “race” continues to dominate others because it has always controlled the most efficient killing mechanisms on the planet. It used, and uses, its industrial weapons to carry out mass murder, genocide, subjugation and exploitation, whether on slave plantations, the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee, the Philippines and Vietnam, in Baltimore and Ferguson or in our endless wars across the Middle East.
The true credo of the white “race” is we have everything, and if you try to take any of it from us we will kill you. This is the essential meaning of whiteness. As [it] turns on itself in an age of diminishing resources it is in the vital interest of the white underclass to understand what its elites and its empire are actually about. These lies, Baldwin warned, will ultimately have fatal consequences for America.
“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,” Baldwin said. “How precisely you’re 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. 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.”
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