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Ideas of Witness from James Baldwin

Ideas of Witness from James Baldwin

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


February 19, 2021

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Bearing witness is of primary importance in Raoul Peck’s documentary I am Not Your Negro. Using unfinished manuscripts by James Baldwin (which Baldwin had titled Remember This House), the film is separated into the following sections: “Paying My Dues,” “Heroes,” “Witness,” “Purity,” “Selling the Negro,” and “I am not a Nigger.” Throughout the book, Baldwin discusses four of his heroes (also his friends and pioneers in the civil rights movement): Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Lorraine Hansberry. These four figures feature prominently both in Baldwin’s life and in the civil rights movement, and yet none of them lived to the age of 40. According to Baldwin, Remember This House is an (unfinished) attempt to witness and describe the complexity of the civil rights movement, which Baldwin saw as integral to the American identity.

The movie begins with Peck’s note:

“In June 1979,
acclaimed author James Baldwin
commits to a complex endeavor:

tell his story of America
through the lives of three
of his murdered friends:
Medgar Evers,
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Malcolm X

Baldwin never got past
his thirty pages of notes,
entitled: Remember This House.”

As time passed, the paths of these three men became more aligned in goals and vision. The idea of freedom for all and equality for all drove these men to become public figures. Because their lives were all violently cut short and often misunderstood, Baldwin wrote about what he witnessed. He writes:

“As concerns Malcolm and Martin,
I watched two men, coming from
unimaginably different backgrounds,
whose positions, originally, were poles apart,
driven closer and closer together.

By the time each died, their positions
had become virtually the same position.
It can be said, indeed, that Martin
picked up Malcolm’s burden,
articulated the vision which
Malcolm had begun to see,
and for which he paid with his life.
And that Malcolm was one of the people
Martin saw on the mountaintop. …

I was older than Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin.
I was raised to believe that the eldest
was supposed to be a model for the younger,
and was, of course, expected to die first.

Not one of these three lived to be forty.”

To visually underscore the environment in which these men grew up, Raoul Peck inserts film and television clips from the 1930s through the 60s. He also includes clips from lectures and interviews. The layered effect is powerful. Words of justice and equality are surrounded by popular films devoid of diversity. Though he largely writes about his friendships, these layers underscore Baldwin’s points. Wanting to bear witness to these lives fits into the project’s goal: truth-telling. It raises the question: how does one tell the whole truth? Peck layers interviews and events, celebrities and marches so as to demonstrate how complicated it was for Baldwin to get at the truth.

After the notes about Malcolm, King and Evers, Baldwin discusses Lorraine Hansberry. He writes:

“Lorraine Hansberry would not be very much
younger than I am now if she were alive.
At the time of the Bobby Kennedy meeting,
she was thirty-three.
That was one of very last times
I saw her on her feet,
and she died at the age of thirty-four.

I miss her so much.

People forget how young everybody was.
Bobby Kennedy, for another, quite different,
example, was thirty-eight.”

At the end of this meeting with Bobby Kennedy, Lorraine Hansberry asked for a “moral” commitment from Kennedy, which he was unable to give. She replies, “But I am very worried…about the state of the civilization which produced that photograph of a white cop standing on that Negro woman’s neck in Birmingham.” Baldwin wants to stress the importance of this meeting because of its failure. He concludes, “And then, we heard the thunder,” which may foreshadow the upcoming assassinations. It may speak to the rising noise level of politics and strife. Or, it may refer to the deafening silence which followed Hansberry’s death. Or, perhaps, most likely, he hears thunder because of these combined events.

Baldwin feels a responsibility because he is privy to the entire argument in a way that few others can claim. An activist himself, he comes from within the struggle, within the movement, and yet, he never belonged to any single movement or place. He notes movement as an essential piece of his role as a witness. Baldwin writes:

“I saw the sheriffs, the deputies, the storm troopers
more or less in passing.
I was never in town to stay.
This was sometimes hard on my morale,
but I had to accept, as time wore on,
that part of my responsibility – as a witness –
was to move as largely and as freely as possible,
to write the story, and to get it out.”

Though Baldwin gave lectures, and wrote essays, these final notes did not make it to press. He began this project near the end of his life, in order to explain the civil rights movement as an insider. I am Not Your Negro is the next film up for discussion in our Winter Film Series. For more information about the series, email rf*****@hm*.edu.

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