“The story of the Negro in America, is the story of America and it is not a pretty story,” James Baldwin once wrote. Thirty years since his death in 1987, there have been just a few times in our country’s history the story has been uglier than the narrative of Trump’s America.
I saw a new documentary this week that reminded me just how badly we need Baldwin (a personal hero of mine) right now; we need his honesty and courage and intellectual ferocity to help us navigate this strange new world, a world of fake news and so-called alternative facts, we find ourselves in.
Sean Yoes (Courtesy Photo)
“I Am Not Your Negro,” (currently playing at the Charles Theater in Baltimore) which was recently nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, depicts integral swaths of Baldwin’s mythic life. Director Raoul Peck illuminates a story Baldwin was working on at the time of his death, “Remember This House,” which focused on the writer’s friendship with three martyred American heroes: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
The filmmaker weaves footage from the 1960’s with images from the ongoing 21st century saga of Black Lives Matter, to explicitly demonstrate just how little progress we’ve made as a country regarding our ubiquitous racial polemic.
During one of myriad volatile excerpts from the documentary, Baldwin, one of the original prophets of rage from the 1960’s, is scathing in his analysis of former Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s (gunned down two short months after the King assassination in 1968) prediction about the ascension of a Black president. Samuel L. Jackson’s narration brought Baldwin’s thoughts to life from his 1965 essay, “The American Dream and the American Negro.”
“I remember when the ex-Attorney General, Mr. Robert Kennedy, said it was conceivable that in 40 years in America we might have a Negro President,” Baldwin said. “That sounded like a very emancipated statement to White people. They were not in Harlem when his statement was first heard. They did not hear the laughter and bitterness and scorn with which this statement was greeted. From the point of view of the man in the Harlem barber shop, Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday and now he is already on his way to the Presidency,” Baldwin observed. “We were here for 400 years and now he tells us that maybe in 40 years, if you are good, we may let you become President.”
In wake of the historic presidency of Barack Obama, who was followed by Trump (manifestly unqualified to be president in the minds of many), who zealously attempted to delegitimize his presidency, Baldwin’s disparagement of Kennedy’s prediction, propped upon White entitlement seems even more relevant in 2017 and infinitely more damning.
God, what would James Baldwin think of Donald Trump and his ascension to the White House?
Baldwin’s voice (avuncular and menacing all at once to my ear) and his words embodied in Jackson’s narration, serves as a salve for so many of us who are struggling with the seemingly burgeoning madness of Trumpism. Baldwin’s incisive observations, his relentless and searing prosecution of America is a comforting reminder for so many of us, that we are not crazy. Our rage is real and justified. During one of the excerpts heard in “I Am Not Your Negro” Baldwin speaks to us from his 1963 interview with famed Black psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark.
“I am terrified at the moral apathy, the death of the heart that is happening in my country,” Baldwin said. “These people have deluded themselves for so long, they really don’t think I’m human. I base this on their conduct, not what they say. And this means they have become in themselves moral monsters,” Baldwin added. “It’s a terrible indictment, I mean every word I say.”
Indeed, we need Baldwin now more than ever.
Sean Yoes is a senior contributor for the AFRO and host and executive producer of, AFRO First Edition, which airs Monday through Friday, 5 p.m.-7 p.m. on WEAA, 88.9.