- I Am Not Your Negro, 2016 dir. by Raoul Peck
At the close of I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin, in an archival clip from 1963—with those familiar heavily lidded eyes, dragging occasionally on the last of a cigarette, articulately adlibbing in complex clauses—speaks the words that give the film (with a bit of cleaning up and restructuring) its title. "I can't be a pessimist, because I'm alive," he tells his unseen audience, but the message that he delivers scarcely seems an optimist's crowing, either: "I am forced to believe we can survive, we must survive. But the Negro in this country, the future of the Negro in this country, is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of this country. It is entirely up to the American people, and their representatives, it is entirely up to the American people […] whether they are going to face, and deal with, and embrace the stranger who they have maligned so long. What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I'm not a nigger, I'm a man. […] If I'm not the nigger here, and if you invented him—you white people invented him—then you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it is able to ask that question." Sandwiching that between a montage of contemporary African American portraits and Kendrick Lamar's "The Blacker the Berry" playing over the credit sequence, director Raoul Peck insists that we see that Baldwin's articulation of the problem fits our own time as much as Baldwin's. Throughout the movie—playing clips of Ferguson riots or Black Lives Matter (BLM) marches against historic footage of mid-1960s Civil Rights struggle, for example—Peck makes Baldwin a prophet for our times.
And, indeed, even without Peck's film, it is clear that Baldwin has become a voice for our time as much—perhaps even more—than his own. We are in the midst of a Baldwin boom. Little of his work has ever been out of print, but with Darryl Pinckney's completion of the third and last volume of his collected works for Library of America in 2015 (Late Novels joining the two volumes Toni Morrison edited in 1998, Early Novels and Essays), his works are again fully, more comprehensively available. Jesmyn Ward's edited collection The Fire Next Time (2017) gathers eighteen different contemporary voices speaking to the problem of race in America today, but speaking through and to Baldwin's legacy (as is made clear by the title's reference to Baldwin's classic essay The Fire Next Time , with its prophetic anticipation of long hot summers to come). William J. Maxwell positions Baldwin as the voice who most speaks for Black Lives Matter activists: "Baldwin reigns as the movement's literary conscience, touchstone, and pinup, its go-to ideal of the writer in arms whose social witness only enhances his artfulness." Jacqueline Woodson notes "there seems to be a Baldwin revival happening right now. Carl Hancock Rux recently staged his mesmerizing Stranger on Earth, imagining a meeting between Baldwin and vocalist Dinah Washington. Educators are battling to get Baldwin back on school curricula. Scholars and writers are rallying around his legacy. His interviews and quotes are flooding social media." In a New York Times podcast, Wesley Morris and Lenna Wortham catch the precise problem the renewed interest entails in their title, "The Tragically Chronic Relevance of James Baldwin." Baldwin remains useful because of his articulateness and forthrightness in dealing with the problem of race in America, yes, but [End Page 101] he remains useful mostly because that problem of race has not been resolved.
Further, Baldwin's re-emergence as a voice speaks to broader shifts in culture, relating to...