Tuesday, October 24, 2017

I Am Not Your Negro

“One thing was certain, that the white kitten had had nothing to do with it: - it was the black kitten’s fault entirely.”  - Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass.

Last weekend, I went to see I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck's 2016 documentary film based on an unfinished literary project by the writer James Baldwin. Baldwin intended to write a book linking the lives and assassinations of three Black American leaders, all personally known to him: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.  The film takes this idea as a starting point, but does not attempt to carry out Baldwin’s project in cinematic form. Rather, it uses documentary footage to build up a portrait of Baldwin himself, and operates as a vehicle for his eloquence as witness (his word) of race relations in America.

Partway into the film, over footage of lynchings and violent suppression of protests by civil rights activists, we hear an excerpt from one of Baldwin’s essays. He says that people sometimes think that organized violence of whites against blacks is an expression of power; in reality, it is an expression of weakness, an almost hysterical response to morally justified resistance from the subjugated. The black man may hate the white for what has been done to his people, but the white man dreads the black. He fears revenge, but more abstractly, he feels the need to ward off the moral threat the perspective of the subjugated poses for white identity. On Baldwin’s analysis (as I have understood it, possibly mixed with that of my old philosophy professor, Etienne Balibar) this dread is what motivates continuing violence against the less powerful, as well as the relentless superficiality, the insidious “innocence” of mass culture in America – and not just America.

Late in the film, an Australian philosopher from Harvard makes an unlikely appearance. He is a guest on an American TV talk-show, along with Baldwin. The philosopher (a white man, needless to say) says he doesn’t know why there’s so much fuss made about being black or white, and urges Baldwin to consider that as an intellectual and a writer, he is likely to have more in common with other intellectuals and writers, than with other blacks, per se. Baldwin reacts with articulate anger, describing the potentially lethal threat faced daily by blacks in Harlem, where Baldwin grew up. His passionate words foreground the culpable ignorance of the Australian intellectual, his blithe disregard of the privilege that allows him to consider race irrelevant. The Australian himself appears nonplussed. No doubt he feels misunderstood, and if his antipodean status has left a crack of insecurity in his Harvard philosopher’s self-assurance, perhaps unfairly maligned. The encounter is a small example of the great difficulty of communication across entrenched power relations.

On a personal level, the scene reminded me of a philosophy staff seminar at the University of Sydney, where I presented a paper on “The Powerlessness of the Powerful: Riots as Counter-Violence.” Although I did not draw directly on Baldwin’s work, my argument was in keeping with his approach. I proposed that the riots that periodically break out in Australian Aboriginal communities could be interpreted as a form of protest against institutionalized racism, one which often provokes tellingly disproportionate displays of “power” from a state that appears powerless (or unwilling) to address the underlying problems of race relations in this country.

At the end of my presentation, a highly successful philosopher of physics raised his hand. Instead of engaging directly with my argument, he told a story from his student days, when he shared a dorm room with an Englishman and a man from South Africa. He said the student from South Africa was very nice and in other respects an intelligent person, but when he spoke about race relations in South Africa, would come out with shockingly racist remarks. The speaker and his English friend were mutually appalled by the South African’s apparently unreflective racism, but hesitated to confront him about it.

At this stage, I imagined the point of this story might be to illustrate how difficult it can be for privileged individuals who are immersed in a culture of institutionalized racism to bring themselves to recognise this, and perhaps how hard it is to challenge this conditioned ignorance, or “innocence,” in a way that doesn’t simply provoke a reactive, self-protective hardening of the denial involved – related to the dread of which Baldwin speaks. I was nodding agreement, indulging the speaker’s expansive, story-telling way of expressing these ideas - until it emerged that in fact, the purpose of his story was to allow him to compare me and my presentation to the nice South African and his guilelessly racist remarks. Like him, my interlocutor suggested, I clearly had no idea how racist my paper might appear to my more sophisticated colleagues. But he could see that I was a nice person, and meant well.

It was an astonishing put down. The man made no attempt to explain what about my paper struck him as racist and at the time, I was too taken aback to demand that he justify his attack with argument. Instead, I mumbled about how I had previously presented the same material to an audience including an Aboriginal legal academic and several others whose own work engaged directly with similar issues, and it had been well received. Later, I wondered why he had felt the need to cut me down like that – had I pressed upon a sore point in speaking about the powerlessness of the powerful to this powerful man?

I imagine that if he had been pressed to articulate his objection, my critic's argument might have resembled that of the Australian philosopher who told Baldwin to stop making such a fuss about race, and concentrate on more intellectual matters, perhaps by positing an Archimedean point outside space and time from which to solve properly philosophical problems. His additional through-the-looking-glass cleverness was to imply that to speak about racial power relations in the elite and almost exclusively white space of a philosophy staff seminar at the University of Sydney was not only of dubious intellectual value, but was itself racist.

(How so? If you don’t already understand, it cannot be explained to you, my dear.  Now let me wind my worsted two or three times around your neck, you wicked little kitty, just to see how it looks.)

At the end of the film, Baldwin declares that he is not a negro, but a man, and challenges white America to ask itself why it needs to define him as a negro. What weakness, what dread, in the hearts of the powerful drives them, drives us, to perform definitive acts of violence and cruelty against the less powerful? If we could let ourselves focus on that dread, that terror – if we had the courage to experience it lucidly – perhaps communication about these things would become easier, and less necessary.

Image result for i am not your negro
James Baldwin (1924-1987)

No comments: