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.
PARIS—Let’s just make this point up front that kept being made all weekend: James Baldwin was not an expatriate, and he didn’t escape anything. Maxine Gordon, Dexter’s wife, told a story about the couple meeting Baldwin at a Harlem party (her first time), and the writer calling out to the jazz master: “Hey, Dex, I was reading in the paper that we were expatriates. I thought we just lived in Paris.”
Baldwin said repeatedly that he made France his (writing) home—first from 1948 to the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement in late 1950s, then from 1970 to his death in 1987 at the age of 63—because he was afraid that, as a Black man, he was going to either kill or be killed in America. During his first exile, he believed he would be murdered by Northern white racists; the second, by the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Central Intelligence Agency. With two very different generations of Black male writers and artists—elders Ralph Waldo Ellison, Albert Murray and Romare Bearden on one end, and his younger, fiercer critics LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and Ishmael Reed on the other—all determined to either bloody, or proudly survive being bloodied in, America, Baldwin, stuck in the middle of opposing generations and ideologies, received brickbats for becoming a long-term Trans-Atlantic commuter.
The writer’s relationship with France, Paris specifically, was the topic of no less than three panels at the James Baldwin International Conference, held last week at The American University of Paris. About 240 scholars, activists and writers from across the world came to a cautious nation –in a state of emergency until next month, implemented after last November’s terrorist attack—to honor their hero by gathering in his name and examining every facet of his life and work they could squeeze into the three days.
Before the conference opened, I read galleys of Jules B. Farber’s “James Baldwin: Escape From America, Exile in Provence” (Pelican), a new full-length book on Baldwin’s base of operations in the southeastern corner of France. Scheduled to be published next month, it revealed a very complicated negotiation on Baldwin’s part with the European version of white supremacy.
Provence, specifically the commune of Saint-Paul de Vence, allowed him to recover from the deep depression he felt from losing Malcolm and Martin—“Far from the Harlem tenements,” writes Farber, “this was paradise for Baldwin, who, with childlike glee, wandered barefooted in the groves, picking fruit and nuts”—but he would have to work hard at creating that permanent respite. The story of how with only sporadic rent payments and a stack of IOUs, he slowly charmed Ms. Jeanne Faure, his white racist landlady, to virtually give him the Saint-Paul house he would live and work in for 17 years, is worthy of a one-act play. It’s an extraordinary example of a former “boy preacher”’s ability to make a convert—provided the renter was the commune’s sole Black and, much more importantly, internationally famous.
That fame reverberated in ways that buoyed the spirits of the lonely writer. Baldwin transformed his house, and, therefore, his adopted community, into a must-stop, a welcome table, for traveling celebrities who sought refuge from congested Paris. It’s important to note that virtually all historical accounts show Jimmy as great company, whether entertaining American luminary friends at his home, or heavy drinking among locals in a bar in politically and socially conservative Saint-Paul. His survival instinct was always sharp, and he always made sure to surpass the needed mark.
That house, the subject of a long legal fight since Baldwin’s death and the site of at least two recent journalistic pilgrimages, is in a state of disrepair and may be destroyed. The novelist and essayist who died in that house is considered one of Paris’s many, many, national treasures, but as international travelers quickly learn, currency is constantly in flux, and the value of exotic trinkets relative.
When Baldwin wrote in his last book, “The Evidence of Things Not Seen,” that the Western World was “located somewhere between the Statue of Liberty and a pillar of salt,” he meant France, too. Lest we forget, the statue was an 1886 gift to America by France and created by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, a French sculptor, to celebrate, from the perspective of the formerly enslaved, their Jim Crowed, Reconstructed freedom offered by America.
“At the center of the European horror,” Baldwin continued, “is their religion: a religion by which it is intended one to be coerced, and in which no one believes, the proof being the Black/White conditions, or options, the horror into which the cowardly delusion of White supremacy seems to have transformed Africa, and the utterly intolerable nightmare of the American Dream.”
And France, as one of the members of the European axis of evil, did transform L’Afrique: it conquered lands now known as Senegal, Guinea, Niger, Chad…..the list can go on well into the next article. It was defeated by Africans who declared a free Black country called Haiti, but the price of that freedom ticket was to pay the French reparations! It’s such a beautiful country. But although it’s not hard to figure out why, it is hard sometimes to remember why when its splendor soaks into the soul. All throughout time, beauty seduces to hide away ugly truths for as long as it can, and France has beaucoup d’expertise.
(As the Baldwin conference closed, The Washington Post reported that French President Francois Hollande announced the nation would create a memorial and museum devoted to the country’s role in the slave trade. The Franco-Algerians, France’s long-suffering and abused immigrants, are still waiting for any such equivalent public acknowledgement and study of, say, the Algerian Massacre of 1962. And Gordon, explaining how the French love to spotlight American racism but remain in denial about their own, held up an issue of Liberation, a French tabloid that made that day’s cover story about Ferguson.)
Panel presenter Dorrie Wilson explained how in 2016, it’s not just the Franco-Algerians who are, as Baldwin famously called them, France’s niggers. Citizenship in Paris today, she explained, is determined by France’s arbitrary power, which creates a permanently unstable relationship for its residents who have settled into their new nation, including those recently arrived, and unwanted, Afghan, Syrian and other migrants. They are all eternal strangers in the village, she explained. And last November’s terrorism attack, she held, has made things worse, the xenophobia increased.
These ridiculous contradictory European (read: white) impulses are why “Meeting The Man: James Baldwin in Paris,” a 1971 documentary screened at one of the Baldwin/Paris conference panels, produced laughter and irritation from the assembled scholars. In the film, the novelist throws the European filmmaker’s plans for a combo travelogue-literature chat into the rubbish bin. He instead of being filmed associating with Franco-Algerians and standing in front of the Bastille, the prison that was torn down—stormed, actually—during the French revolution. Baldwin literally stood tall in front of it, mentioned that there were political prisoners in America and proclaimed: “I could be Bobby Seale. I could be Angela Davis. I could be Medgar Evers…I’m not interested in giving you ‘James Baldwin’s Paris.’”
Baldwin demands his own platform right then and there, and gets it. He exposed the double-standard of the Bastille being a symbol of liberation because the prisoners were white, when, if the imprisoned were Black, they’d be considered savages by Europe. He may have loved his enemies, but he proved he knew them well when he told the ignorant, exasperated European filmmaker that, “You [the white Western world], for me, is my prison. You are my warden.” That’s not the theatrics of a man ridiculed for decades as “Martin Luther Queen”: that’s a meaningful symbolic gesture in, and at the heart of, France. His stance is the equal of any such public act of Frederick Douglass or Ida B. Wells-Barnett in America.
As a “writer in a revolutionary situation,” as Baldwin describes himself later in the flick, he had to know, ever stuck in the middle—between Europe and America, and promising both rage and reconciliation (“I’m a Black man in the middle of this century”)—when and where to claim his historic space. He chose well, and it’s one of the reasons that what the conference organizers and participants referred to as “Baldwin Studies” is just beginning.