White millennials need to see Baldwin’s ‘I Am Not Your Negro’
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I don’t have to spend much time listing the countless racist acts that prove millennials are not actually that much more progressive than previous generations.
I don’t even need to leave our state of South Carolina; from a 21-year-old white supremacist killing nine black parishioners in Charleston in 2015 to the countless white students making racist social media posts across South Carolina college campuses, including our own, this past year, we’ve seen the prevalence of blatant white millennials’ racism.
Altogether, studies show that millennials’ negative views of black people differ only slightly from those of their parents.
Beyond the explicit racism our generation has shown, at the root is a gross ignorance about our history and the legacy of white supremacy. This is the reason the words of James Baldwin in the 2017 Oscar-nominated documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” remain completely relevant nearly 40 years and a black president later.
Baldwin, a black author who wrote about race in America during the height of the civil rights movement, makes a statement on which the film is entitled: “The question you got to ask yourself… the white population of this country’s got to ask itself is, ‘why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place?’ Because I’m not a nigger. I am a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it and you got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.”
In 1979, Baldwin set out to tell the stories of his close friends, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr., all of whom worked and died for racial equality.
The film uses notes from that unfinished memoir, “Remember This House,” which Baldwin didn’t finish before he died. There are no talking heads in the documentary; Samuel L. Jackson’s narration accompanies archival footage of Baldwin, the civil rights movement, along with video and photographs of brutality and protests in Ferguson, Charlotte and Baltimore.
White millennials need to see this film because it is a charge to understand our past and take responsibility for our future.
Baldwin connects white people blind to their privilege and willful ignorance and to our past, showing how the cost manifests today.
As a generation raised in a society that largely believes adopting a “colorblind” ideology will solve the problem of racism, most white millennials have said or have heard a white person say, “Why can’t we just stop talking about racism? It’s in the past.”
In the film, Baldwin replies to a similar insinuation that not all white people in the United States are racist.
“I don’t know what most white people in this country feel,” he said. “But I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don’t know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but I know we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church that is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday.
“That says a great deal for me about a Christian nation. It means I can’t afford to trust most white Christians, and I certainly cannot trust the Christian church.
“I don’t know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me — that doesn’t matter — but I know I’m not in their union. I don’t know whether the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobby is keeping me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools we have to go to.
“Now this is the evidence,” Baldwin said. “You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.”
For the sake of a better future, I encourage you to watch it. Little will change until white people take an honest look at our history and take responsibility for the history we are making today.
As Baldwin said: “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
“I Am Not Your Negro” is playing in Columbia at the Nickelodeon Theatre through March 2.