I just saw the film "I Am Not Your Negro" by Raoul Peck. It is about James Baldwin and Negros in the United States. It was inspired by James Baldwin's unfinished novel, "Remember This House," which looked at the issue of race in America through the lives and impact of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a brilliant film, and is a knife to the heart.
This film made me realize how much we are the product of the culture in which we are brought up, the lens we are taught to view life through, the values we are entrained to by our families; how imprinted we are in ways both large and small by our surroundings, what we see and what we hear, what we are encouraged toward or discouraged from. I do not consider myself a racist. I was brought up in a liberal family, in a city that was racially diverse, to believe that all people are equal. I still believe that, but I also realize that, as much as I'd like to deny it, racism rears itself within me. It's subtle and can still be unconscious and, as an adult, I'm more aware of it and more able to recognize and override it, but it's there.
My father held and practiced the most liberal view between my parents. My mother had racist views that she mostly tried to hide, but instilled within me none the less. A whispered word here or there. A warning given. An action taken. Children are very observant, and my mother's behavior affected and shaped me, as did my father's. A certain fear was instilled, erroneous perspectives handed down, ways of being taught. I'm a combination of my father's acceptance and liberalism, and my mother's fear and closet racism.
I'm an adopted child and am descended from the Native American Southern Cheyenne tribe. The pure Native American blood was a few generations back, but my mother at one point admitted to me that she had worried that I would look "like an Indian" when I grew up. She was afraid that my skin would turn too brown, that my eyes would darken, that my nose would become too prominent, that any number of things she deemed "Indian" would make themselves obvious in my appearance. How strange to tell your child these things. How strange to burden a young mind with these types of distinctions. These concerns from my mother in terms of what I looked like, and therefore how I reflected upon her and who she was, were only the tip of the iceberg in terms of inappropriate things she decided to share with me as I was growing up. I've often looked back and wondered what she might have been thinking when making the choice to so negatively impact me. But, I've come to think that it wasn't a conscious decision on her part to inflict damage. It was just who she was and she didn't realize that some restraint and discretion in terms of what she told me might have been prudent.
There are images in "I Am Not Your Negro" that are painful to see. I was born in 1950. I remember what was going on racially in the fifties and sixties. Memories of injustice and violence will always be with me. But, it's not all in the past. The film helps us realize that, as much as we'd like to think we're farther along than we are in terms of racism, it is still very much alive. The backlash of those who were so threatened by the election of a black President of the United States is being felt right now. President Obama and President Trump are two ends of the spectrum. The conservative pendulum has swung back with a vengeance.
The United States is a country built on slavery, racism, greed and genocide. These are things that can not be denied. We all carry this legacy in our very DNA. We've been shaped by it and continue to be shaped by it. And, in large part, it continues because there is such denial in our culture about these influences. Awareness is the first step toward change. And, in order to change the racial, power-over-others, mentality that pervades the United States, we must become aware that it's operating and how it impacts everything. None of us are innocent. We're all responsible for the culture of our country. We're all complicit in how our culture is shaped by what we allow and what we don't, by what we condone and what we punish, by what we encourage and what we discourage. Each and every one of us must look within and root out the causes of our own contributions to our continuing racist, power-over-others society.
The question James Baldwin says that each of us must ask ourselves is, "Why do we need niggers?" What does it say about us and our society that it was built on such inequality, such disregard for our fellow humans, such a lack of respect for Life itself? How did it ever become acceptable for one human to own another? What makes it possible for one human to perpetrate violence upon another and excuse it due to a difference of skin color...or sexual orientation, or religion, or economic status, or gender, or any number of issues? The list is long. Why must we put ourselves above anyone for any reason in order to make ourselves feel better? Why do we have such a difficult time with those who are different than we are, on any level? Why is it so hard to accommodate a difference of opinion, or way of life? What is the fear that makes us want a homogeneous society? These are some of the questions that are in front of us. How are we to go forward as a country? What values are important to us? Who are we as Americans? What is it we want for ourselves?
James Baldwin moved to France and lived in Paris for many years. In the film, he says that by doing so he was able to eliminate the terror of racial violence that he lived with every day on the streets of the United States. He says that he didn't miss the United States at all. But, what he did miss was his family, and black culture itself. And, he was ultimately drawn back to the United States because he felt it was his destiny to be a witness to and document the stories and issues of the racism of the society out of which he came.
I live in France now; not for the same reasons that James Baldwin did. But, I do understand the freedom from racial violence he experienced while he was here, even though I am not black and can't even begin to know the level of fear he did. But, when violence is present, it affects people of all races and persuasions. It is absolutely true that violence to any one of us is violence to all of us. In a society where violence is as prevalent as it is in the United States, everyone lives in fear. For some that fear runs deeper than for others. For some that fear is denied. But, it is present, and it affects all levels of life.
The United States is in crisis. Many of our traditional values are at risk; values that have been held so dear they've been written into our Constitution. Much of what shapes our identity as Americans is in question. Our present trajectory, which continues to be based in racism, violence and greed, will only create our ultimate destruction; and, due to our global impact, the possible destruction of our planet. I'm not being dramatic. According to many scientists of varying disciplines, we have already crossed the threshold of destruction from which there is no return. But, I remain an optimist. I still believe in miracles. I still think it's possible to turn it around. We just have to decide to do it. We have to decide what is really important. We have to decide that our planet and our values are worth what it will take to initiate and sustain the change necessary to pull ourselves back from the brink of destruction and learn to accept each other and work together for the common good.
We are at a choice point that is writ large for each and every one of us. Racism and violence and a fear of diversity are pieces of the pie. We've pushed ourselves into a corner where the decisions we make now will not only affect the generations that will come after us, but the very life of the planet herself. I'm not sure why humans need a crisis in order to change, but here we are. This is no time to deny or hide or think things can either go on the way they are or go back to what they once were. No. This is a time for awareness, responsibility, creativity and change.
The old ways are dying. New ways are being born. Old patterns of power, greed and destruction are leaving as those who hold them die and take them off the planet. Children who are wired for this change are being born and bringing with them new solutions to old problems. Our society seems to be doing a very good job of trying to suppress the difference and the brilliance of these children, but it is a losing battle because the new Life will prevail upon the old. There is a lot to be done, and a short time in which to do it, but I remain convinced it's possible. Humans love the last-minute save. We love the drama of pulling it all back from the edge. Well, we've created a doozy for ourselves this time, and the clock is ticking, but I'm convinced we're going to make it.
If you have not seen "I Am Not Your Negro" I would highly recommend watching it. It's a wonderful, intelligent and thought-provoking work. It will move you and touch you and challenge you. Allow yourself to open to all that it triggers within you. Thanks Raoul Peck. And, thanks James Baldwin, for all you were and are...wherever you are. You're still reaching through and teaching us and lifting us up. On wings of angels, Brother!