This Thursday, you’re invited to join WKAR for a free screening and discussion about the film I Am Not Your Negro. The Oscar nominee for Best Documentary is billed as an examination of race in America through the words of author James Baldwin.
The oldest of 9 children, James Baldwin grew up New York’s Harlem. A voracious appetite for books and experiences in segregation helped transform him into one of America’s most prolific writers.
“I was black of course but I also knew I was smart," said Baldwin. "I didn’t know how I would use my mind or even if I could but that was the only thing I had to use.”
Michigan State University sociology professor Carl Taylor was in grade school when he visited family in New York’s Harlem. It was not uncommon for Baldwin to be invited to his aunt’s brownstone.
“He was talking about social conditions but he was also talking about how we interact with each other," said Taylor. "He was talking about how we treat each other as family members. What I loved about it the most was he could come inches of telling white America about its own hypocrisy.”
In 1963, Baldwin’s essays and push for civil rights landed him on the cover of Time Magazine and many TV talk shows, like this appearance on the Dick Cavett show.
“When any white man in the world says ‘give me liberty or give me death’ the entire white world applauds,” said Baldwin. “When a black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one.”
Taylor said African-Americans were used to sports heroes or civil rights icons like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X pushing for societal change. But Taylor said when Baldwin spoke, it was different.
“He wasn’t Bill Russell or Muhammad Ali or Joe Louis,” said Taylor. “He was this brilliant writer, diminutive little guy who was gay. He became our David and slayed Goliath with words.”
Taylor said Baldwin’s phrase “I am not your Negro” was an intellectual way to respond to long-held stereotypes and allowed African-Americans at the time to claim their identity.
“I’m not that second class or third class person that you are trying to keep me contained to,” said Taylor. “So when Baldwin says ‘I am not your Negro’ that’s as far as you can take it without being actually profane.”
“It was a defining moment.”
The Indie Lens Pop-Up screening and question-and-answer afterwards of I Am Not Your Negro will happen Thursday, December 14 at 7:00 p.m. at WKAR Studios.