Tony Norman: The furious eloquence of James Baldwin
February 17, 2017 12:00 AM
By Tony Norman / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There’s a scene in Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated James Baldwin documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” that most African-Americans will recognize from personal experience.
In a 1968 episode of “The Dick Cavett Show,” Baldwin, who told the host earlier that he wasn’t feeling too optimistic about American race relations at that particular moment, had nonetheless spoken eloquently of the toll racism takes on not only on individuals, but on American democracy.
Because it was “The Dick Cavett Show,” it was inevitable that a philosophy professor would wander on to the set to give his very learned take on James Baldwin’s blues.
Asked by the host if he took issue with what Baldwin had to say, Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss said he agreed with much of Baldwin’s analysis, but he said he also disagreed with a great deal of it.
“But I think he’s overlooking one very important matter,” the professor said to Mr. Cavett without directly addressing the author, who sat inches away from him on the couch smoking a cigarette. “Each of us, I think, is terribly alone.”
The philosophy professor then launched into existentialist boilerplate about how each individual has to struggle with some obstacle in life and that emphasizing one element of that struggle at the expense of the others leads to a form of inauthenticity.
“So why must we always concentrate on color?” Professor Weiss asks the author. Visibly bored with the gross paternalism behind the question, Baldwin patiently explained why he decamped to Paris in 1948 to escape America’s “particular social terror, which was not the paranoia of my own mind, but a real social danger visible in the face of every cop, every boss, everybody.”
Before the professor could state the obvious that “not all Americans are racist,” black America’s foremost essayist and public intellectual delivered a devastating soliloquy:
“I don’t know what most white people in this country feel,” he said. “But I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don’t know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but I know we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church that is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday.
“That says a great deal for me about a Christian nation. It means I can’t afford to trust most white Christians, and I certainly cannot trust the Christian church.
“I don’t know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me — that doesn’t matter — but I know I’m not in their union. I don’t know whether the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobby is keeping me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools we have to go to.
“Now this is the evidence,” Baldwin said, his voice rising with indignation. “You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.”
And with that, James Baldwin finally had the professor’s undivided attention.
If anything like a mic drop had existed in those days, James Baldwin would’ve earned it. Most black people are left tongue-tied and exhausted by such encounters. It is only while tossing sleeplessly in the middle of the night can most of us come up with answers as relevant as the smackdown Baldwin laid on that philosophy professor in 1968, or on William F. Buckley Jr. during a debate at Cambridge University in 1965.
James Baldwin never went to bed castigating himself about what he should’ve said to those who felt that “the Negro” should be happy with integrated lunch counters and stop all the bellyaching about equality. He always had the presence of mind to say what needed to be said.
James Baldwin’s job was to connect the assumptions of those blinded by their privilege to a larger, more tragic American tableaux just beyond the walls of their segregated schools, neighborhoods and workplaces whether they were ready to hear that truth or not.
This is the gift of Raoul Peck’s brilliant documentary — he’s resurrected James Baldwin for a new generation that has rarely seen such furious eloquence. Using archival footage from throughout the 20th century, including the author’s public debates and television appearances, Mr. Peck is able to infuse our own moment with much needed bursts of Baldwin’s fierce moral energy.
Baldwin’s words, as spoken by a much dialed-down Samuel L. Jackson, have a renewed relevance that is undeniable in an age that exudes racial reductio ad absurdum. This documentary will be in Pittsburgh for an exclusive run at the Harris Theater, Downtown, until Feb. 23. Don’t miss it.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631 Twitter @TonyNormanPG.