James Baldwin and the Struggle to Bear Witness

A484d4341abc4eb235fcf81b108f384c24c04f21Lovia Gyarkye at The New Republic:

In 1948, James Baldwin left Harlem for Paris to save himself. After his friend Eugene Worth jumped off the George Washington Bridge to his death, Baldwin was afraid that he would suffer a similar fate. In a 1984 interview with The Paris Review, he said: “My luck was running out. I was going to go to jail, I was going to kill somebody or be killed.” It was because of this desire to escape the dire situation of being a black male in America that Baldwin found himself alone in France with only $40 in his pockets. Years later, Baldwin would write a series of essays reflecting on his Paris years. It was in Paris that he found his voice and also came to understand the complexity of his American identity. “The very word ‘America,’” Baldwin wrote in his 1959 essay “The Discovery of What It Means to be An American,” “remains a new, almost completely undefined and extremely controversial proper noun. No one in the world seems to know exactly what it describes, not even we motley millions who call ourselves Americans.

Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, which opens on Friday in select theaters around the country, revisits Baldwin’s interrogation of what it means to be American. The film is not just a factual report about a particular event or person. Like the famed works that are its inspiration, it is an essay. And like any good essay, it begins with one question, and, over the course of its 90 minutes, asks a set of new ones. Similar to its literary counterpart, the essay-film escapes clear definition. It is the problematic stepchild in a world insistent on categorization. But the film’s troublesome, inquisitive nature is in keeping with what Montaigne, the inventor of the essay, meant his “Essais” to be—attempts, trials, experiments.

more here.