I celebrated my birthday six days early by going to the movies. Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” and Jamal Joseph’s “Chapter and Verse” were on the Black indie bill.
Peck is my kind of Black artist. All I really know about him is that he made “Sometimes in April,” “Lumumba” and now this. For me, that’s enough. The Haitian filmmaker used the access he got from James Baldwin’s estate well: he was able to use the outline of one of the writer’s unfinished works, “Remember This House.” Using that piece was an interesting choice, because it meant that the film was not about Baldwin, but about that outline’s subjects: Medgar, Martin and Malcolm. Peck takes that outline and Baldwin’s many recorded interviews and speeches as a base and, with the help of narrator Samuel L. Jackson, seamlessly expands into the essayist’s seemingly entire body of work. America and its mythologies are explained in ways that, yes, cliché though it sounds, are still relevant today. (His and Peck’s quick, time-travel dismissal [sort of] of the Obama years was amazingly well-done; in 40 years, Baldwin scoffs, mocking Bobby Kennedy, “if you’re good, you can be president.” And the Obamas flashed on the screen, symbolic of the instant they occupied, before the film returns to the struggle.) Peck, in full control of his “missing” Baldwin (audio)book, shuttles back-and-forth in time so smoothly that, for an instant, the viewer is confused which period she inhabits; a black-and-white Trayvon Martin fits well into the historic flow. For a writer who used the words “frightening” and “terrified” so much, Baldwin was actually quite fearless. He could say that whites acted like monsters, like he does here, and somehow can get away with that. I miss that level of courage in Black people today. Peck, who succeeds in salvaging and presenting that heroism, pushing it into the Trump Era, has the kind of intellectual clarity that Baldwin would appreciate.
I guess Joseph would wince and give me the side-eye if I said “Chapter and Verse” was (just) “Boyz ‘n’ the Hood” for the millennial generation, starring a new-jack Socrates Fortlow. But that’s what it is, and there is nothing wrong with that. Joseph wants the entire Black community to be his audience, so he has something for everyone: for youngsters who crave ‘Hood violence, check; older people who will identify with Loretta Devine, who anchors this film, check; images of historic Black leaders in the background (are they sad angels, witnessing the 21st century Black dysfunction?) for the “conscious” filmgoer who knows he’s watching a film about Harlem done by a Black Panther, check. It’s the sum of its parts, no more and no less. And that’s far from a crime. It’s ambitious only in its theme that the survival of the many takes real planning and real sacrifice by the few.
Ta-Nehisi Coates does an outstanding job here as a post-Black Nationalist foil to President Obama, explaining the latter’s lifelong attempt to become Captain America. He really does a good job undressing the first Black President as a Black man who, because he grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia and completely loved and trusted his white family, he had the attitude/worldview that allowed White America to, in turn, completely trust him with the keys. (Coates correctly points out that Obama was in younger days an activist, not a protester; that says a lot when you think about it.) In many ways, I think that this is Coates’ breakthrough article, because now he can stop being an embedded journalist to Black Star Power. So enough of this I’m-trying-to-figure-all-this-stuff-out-without-offending-you-good-white-intellectuals role he has played to his loving white audience. Clearly, he has enough power, savings and fame by now. 🙂 Under President Trump’s naked, White Nationalist oppression, I hope Coates, a very talented writer who has played the game well, will now directly say what he really feels about white Americans, and White America, to a white readership who, interestingly enough, now trusts him enough that they will be ready to hear him. (I hope the lesson that will not be learned from all this is that white trust is essential for Black success and power, but that ship has probably already sale-d.) Coates will hopefully now tell truths undiluted by “dreams” (his or anyone else’s), or “Dreamers,” his annoyingly euphemistic name for whites in “Between The World and Me,” his award-winning update of James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time.” Well, that next time came about three weeks ago. It’s woke-ness for everybody. Time to share the pain. Time to stop dancing what my friend, the writer Ericka Blount Danois, calls “the soft shoe.” Or, as Baldwin himself says in “Blues For Mr. Charlie,” his play inspired by the lynching of Emmett Till:
Richard: You still determined to break your neck.
Juanita: Well, it’s a neck-breaking time. I wouldn’t like to appear to be above the battle.
It’s a looooong wait until Feb. 21.
Just in time for the Trump Era!
1) The first thing to remember is that journalism is a TRADE. Anyone has done it, anyone can do it, and now everyone is now doing it. So there are no real “credentials” to being a journalist. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a Howard University drop-out. So, I may add, was Amiri Baraka, one of the greatest writers on Black culture that Black America produced in the 20th century. In his introduction to “The Price of The Ticket: Collected Essays,” James Baldwin talked about how he didn’t even bother going to The New York Amsterdam News because those Negro college boys would have laughed him out the office. Tchou, interestingly, ignores the two-generations-old pipeline that connected Ivy League grads to jobs like hers. (By the way, Farai Chideya is one of those people; Harvard to Newsweek by 25 by 1994.) I guess in Ivy League Land, The Harvard Crimson is “experience,” huh?
Journalism schools were created because the industry was too lazy to train anyone, but needed bodies. I have three journalism degrees, and what I’ve learned from them professionally (from the first two) I could teach in 40 hours or less. As an American journalism historian, I can tell you with some authority (ulp, there’s that word :)) that almost half of the greatest (white, male) journalists of three-quarters of the 20th century had NO degree, never less a “pedigree” (although, some, like George Plimpton and Tom Wolfe, did).
Journalism became a profession in the 20th century because of the MASSIVE need to fill space between advertising. Mass advertising had taken off because of the transfer of people from individual farms to collective cities. The mass audience/market had been born, and content was needed to draw eyeballs (later ears, then, with Tee Vee, the whole thing) to ADS. It was the same reason that
2) “Objectivity” was created. It was created after the Civil War. It was created after 100 years of American viewspapers. Why? For advertising purposes! Creating an “objective,” mainstream media allowed most people to be comfortable with buying the paper to read the advertisements. So both the newspapers owners and advertisers made a pile of money, ,and a WHOLE bunch of people got GREAT careers, travelling the nation and world for decades, with just a bachelor’s degree, decent typing skills and curisoity. They became “prestigious.” This is the real reason why “objectivity” was so cherished.
But what’s really happening here now, right?
3) The walls between mainstream journalism and opinion/literary/cultural/”alternative”/race journalism have been permanently destroyed by the Web 2.0. The segregated world of the Black press, white press, LGBTQIA press, etc. is, now that we are well into the 21st century, getting both merged and, paradoxically, re-segregated. Dude at MTV wants his version of the old Village Voice, right? Well, the VV had both investigative reporting and identity politics writing. The Nation is crapping on the idea because it is representing all of the white male writers who now can’t get jobs–not because their jobs have been eaten by 2.0., but by these “unqualified” Black people. There ain’t enough room anymore for all of dem anymore (and their core audience is dying off): ergo, the old “unqualified” sting. It was different in the mass media era because there were enough jobs for everyone; not everyone wanted to be Norman Mailer or I.F. Stone when they could be the next Edward R. Murrow or David Halberstam. Whites had real choices, based on their priorities and proclivities. But now things that used to be done just in the “alternative” media have now become fulltime, prestigious jobs. Now, these elite white boys have to go teach English and #$%&–you know, the stuff we, as Black people, had to do all our lives, and still do (Rachel Kaadazi Ghansah, one of the greatest writers on Black American culture in the United States, is a public schoolteacher; she’s not on welfare, begging The New York Times Magazine, where she contributes, to hire her.
I never forget that Albert Murray had to retire from TWO jobs (the U.S. Air Force and Tuskegee) before he was “discovered” in the late 1960s. It was the same time a 50-something historian and writer who worked, at various times, as a floor manager (read: janitor) for NBC and the operator of a sandwich stand, John Henrik Clarke, finally got a decent professor job at Hunter College.
So it was amusing to read this article, and to find out that Ana Marie Cox, for instance, is now “prestigious,” when I remember her as a 2004 blogger who supposedly upset the political journalism establishment! LOL! (Here’s the image from The New York Times Magazine cover, which showed her as The Next Big Thing. See, she’s white, so that means she can play a new game to get into the old game.) I remember her saying in that 2004 cover story that her goal was to be at MTV. How wonderful when white girls’ dreams come true! I’m sure Lena Dunham is proud! LOL!
In the end, then, this article is about how elite whites are pissed that they can’t get or keep anything for themselves without some “other” coming in and spoiling their frat party. So, no white boys: most of you will not be David Remnick, Thomas Friedman or the white male Gwen Ifill. Boo-hoo-hoo. And having an Asian female writer buffer your racism with an attempt as sophistication doesn’t take away this new truth.