RAOUL PECK'S BALDWIN
The book is short --- 25 pages of introductory material + 109 pages of text and images + 1 blank verso + 2 pages of CREDITS +1 page of BIBLIOGRAPHY + 1 blank verso + 1 page of PERMISSIONS +1 blank verso +2 pages listing ILLUSTRATIONS --- a total of 143 pages to be read at one sitting.
Peck, Raoul, ed. I Am Not Your Negro: From Texts by James Baldwin. New York: Vintage International, 2017.
As the companion for Peck's film I Am Not Your Negro (2016), the book is a mosaic of Baldwin's unfinished "Notes Toward Remember This House, " snippets from other works by Baldwin, images and quotations from television and film, and slivers of song lyrics.
One does not read the mosaic. One consumes it. Consumption is contingent on whether one engages the mosaic before or after viewing the film. Dealing with the book before seeing the film prepares one to listen to Baldwin's voice, Samuel Jackson's narration, and other archived sounds with more than usual attention and to attend with passionate interest to the film's visual rhetoric. Using the book after witnessing the film helps one to check nuances that one's eyes and ears missed or misinterpreted in the darkened cave of a cinema. These diverging affective and efferent experiences reveal much about the processing of past and contemporary information, much about how one's mind navigates sight and sound. How one contextualizes Peck's manipulation of Baldwin's legacy.
Witnessing is all. In the cliché-saturated ambience of "# Matters," moral judgment is a vexed affair. That is to say the circumstances under which one witnesses Peck's reconstructive witnessing of Baldwin's unfinished effort to locate the lives and assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. matters greatly. One's age, ethnic identity, citizenship, and depth of interest in the conditions of being human are crucial in finding meaning and significance in the film and book versions of I Am Not Your Negro. They determine, to paraphrase Peck, whether it is possible to have "a deep and intimate personal reflection on [one's] own political and cultural mythology, [one's] own experiences of racism and intellectual violence" (xi).
When a friend suggested we should set up a panel discussion of I Am Not Your Negro after viewing the film, I objected. The only panels that have practical legitimacy, as far as I am concerned, are those constituted by people who belong temporarily to a community of seeing and hearing at one time and in one place. Members of such a nonce community should tell one another, not be told by a panel of critics and experts, what is important about what and how the film galvanized them to think and to feel, and perhaps to vow to do. Raoul Peck's commendable interventions by way of film and book demand multiple and quite diverse enactments of community, an investment in being human that the first quarter of the 21st century tries daily to assassinate. James Baldwin's gift of brutal confrontation demands nothing more and nothing less if the world's population is to defeat all enemies by saying "I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO" and acting accordingly.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. April 17, 2017