Essays

I Am Not Your Negress: On Violence and American Necrophilia

I Am Not Your Negro is a spectacularly and explicitly violent film, and yet it’s been described as having “implied” violence.

James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro, a Magnolia Pictures release (photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures, © Dan Budnik, all rights reserved)

Written on the birthdays of those enduring women: Toni Morrison, still on this side, and Audre Lorde, loving us from the other.

 

I did not read the reviews, because I had not seen it yet. I had planned to read them after I saw it. By all accounts, the film was riveting, moving, good, and all of that. An important comment on race and national history in the era of Black Lives Matter. A beautiful articulation of those genius words of that genius Baldwin, wrapped appropriately in the prescience and urgency of their prophesy. A mirror to America, to who we really are, to our individual and collective responsibility. A painful but loving, optimistic look. A good, important film that everyone should see.

Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro opens with an implicit promise to pick up where Baldwin left off, to revisit the last book Baldwin had been writing but did not finish, which was to be about his friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and their assassinations. This, of course, is a difficult promise for a documentary to fulfill, despite the fact that Baldwin’s prophecies about race in America feel perhaps closer and truer than ever. After all, it was said that Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth, comprised of chunks of an unfinished manuscript edited together by his literary executor John Callahan, was the writer’s words but not his novel. And we all know not to watch the “Lost Episodes” of Chappelle’s Show.

After seeing it, I read the widely circulated A.O. Scott New York Times review of the film, which, perhaps unintentionally, conflates the lushness and poignancy of Baldwin with the documentary that draws on and flanks his words. I noticed the customary film information at the bottom of the review, run-time, director, and the like. And the rating:

I Am Not Your Negro
Rated PG-13 for racial slurs and implied violence.

I wondered how such a spectacularly and explicitly violent film — punctuated by the nude body of Malcolm X, pictured from the shoulder up with the giant’s mouth agape at the very beginning of the film; casket photos of Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin; photos of lynched bodies, their snapped necks and foaming mouths in clear view; grinning, vile, white mobs heaving, lynching, shoving, stopping the Communist plot of desegregation; police batons rising, falling, and cracking onto black bodies without ceasing; an indigenous woman, stripped naked by white soldiers, her breasts bare; an officer getting a running start to shove a nameless black woman to the ground; an extended look at the LAPD beating of Rodney King — might be described as having “implied” violence. The film jerks the audience on a necrophiliac roller coaster, plunging us into the serenely violent whiteness of classic Technicolor musicals and then jerking us back to Mantan Moreland. Pulling us down into the assuredness of Baldwin’s words, then unsettling us with police beating a black person. Some of these images of violence are from documentaries, some from films, some from photographs, some from real life. How are we to distinguish one from the other these days as we are so inundated? I searched for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) explanation to understand more:

Rated PG-13 for disturbing violent images, thematic material, language and brief nudity

The MPAA explanation is certainly more accurate for what is depicted in the film, but the description at the end of the Times article is more accurate for how we relate to images of black death today. The violence might be described as implied, and in fact not really mentioned in the Times review at all, because we have become accustomed to visual representations of the murders of black people and their murdered black bodies, real or Hollywood. They are implied because even when captured on video, live on Facebook, no one is guilty of them.

This is the problem with this film and other projects like it (think 12 Years a Slave). White audiences demand proof of their brutality and we give it to them in its rawest, most spectacular, most primitive, most titillating form. Interspersed with Baldwin’s eloquent and exhaustive observations and critiques about race and/in America are these images of spectacular violence. Rather than letting Baldwin speak about sexuality, in the nation as well as his own, the film instead suggests it, in its first few minutes, through a government surveillance record that declared Baldwin “a homosexual.” Through this rhetorical move, Baldwin’s sexuality is shoved in the closet, setting up the audience, and particularly a white male liberal audience, to be quietly, secretly intimate with him in this expansive Narnia of living and dead black men’s bodies that we access through Baldwin’s beautiful wardrobe of words. These images of dead and abused black men’s bodies are almost always juxtaposed with images of enchanting white women, the Doris Days, the Joan Crawfords, dancing about, looking innocent, contemplating, being forlorn, wondering and wandering in their equally spectacular oblivion. The point, of course, is to show that the ease of white life is made possible by black suffering, but it falls into that trap of what cultural studies scholar Tara McPherson has called “lenticular logic” — the idea that black and white experiences, or oppression and supremacy, cannot be represented in the same frame. This point is then buried under the necrophiliac sexualization of black bodies. With killing this shocking, this jarring, this pleasurable, this thrilling, this grotesque, this climactic, who would want it to stop?

*   *   *

Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro, a Magnolia Pictures release (photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

In the context of this all-consuming violence and the glossing over of Baldwin’s queerness, I wondered about his dear friend Lorraine Hansberry, the playwright and writer who was also a queer black woman, who appears briefly in the film as an aside of sorts. Against Hansberry, the documentary inflicts a different kind of violence: it silences her, renders her absent. Over the familiar photograph of the smiling writer, Samuel L. Jackson, the film’s narrator, reads Baldwin’s recounting of Hansberry’s conversation with Bobby Kennedy in that famous New York City meeting in which Kennedy was trying to ascertain “what the Negroes wanted.” Hansberry reportedly said to Kennedy, “I am very worried about the state of the civilization which produced that photograph of the white cop standing on that Negro woman’s neck in Birmingham.” The documentary recounts Baldwin’s reflection on the way Hansberry had smiled at Kennedy, a smile perhaps of disappointment and rage and disgust and menace, as she rose to leave. Said Baldwin, “And I am glad she was not smiling at me.”

While men speak in the film — Martin, Malcolm, Harry Belafonte, Baldwin, Poitier, Kenneth Clark, and so on — we do not hear Lorraine’s voice. Instead, we are provided only with Jackson’s narration of Baldwin’s retelling, itself so far removed from Lorraine’s voice, her importance to Baldwin, and the sanctity and beauty of their queer friendship. And then we learn that Lorraine has died at 34. Of what we are not told. There is no casket shot of Lorraine. No way to consume her death or linger on it or to mourn it. Just her absence.

I always wonder about Lorraine. I have especially wondered about her this year because I am 34, the age she was at the time of her passing. My colleague and I, my best friend from graduate school, my co-author and collaborator, call ourselves James and Lorraine. He says he will not let my end be like Lorraine’s. Or like Zora’s. Sweet, sharp, brilliant, beautiful Lorraine Hansberry.

If we were making a list of demands, I’d want Hansberry to be added to the film’s list, but she would not be. I’d want her name and all of the women’s names to be said aloud. The dead and the dying. The ones beaten, assaulted, lynched, and raped. Say these women’s names first, even, before the litany of men’s names, to mark the intersecting terrors of racism, sexism, and heterosexism at work in those women’s lives and deaths. The film refuses to reckon with the complexity of broad structures of oppression in the same way it refuses to reckon fully with Hansberry, or Baldwin for that matter, beyond their relationship as two black writers.

I Am Not Your Negro, a Magnolia Pictures release (photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

In its closing bits, the film compels the audience to look directly into the faces of black people, using a series of shots, each several seconds in length, where the subjects look directly into the camera. Even here, most of the documentary’s subjects are men. First, two close shots show black men’s faces looking out at us, followed by one or two shots of black women’s faces, followed by more men. Look at their faces, white folks, the documentary seems to say. Unlike most of the film’s focus on the dead, these black men are living, which means you could go to their neighborhoods and find them and fuck them, but they might die if you don’t do something about the violent racism they face, and then you’d have to fuck them in that other way, but why not have it both ways, as you always have? The documentary also presents a list of the black children slain in the era of Black Lives Matter, their pictures on one side of the screen, their names on the other. Aiyana Stanley-Jones is the lone girl on the list. How many black girls were missing?

(God bless that woman Lillian Smith. She knew.)

Lorraine died of pancreatic cancer. Though epidemiologists and men and white people will not admit this, among black people, and black women in particular, cancer has the same cause as a lynching or a rape. The same kinds of racial violence — the absence of white empathy for black pain, the perception that black people do not experience pain like white people, unequal healthcare quality — are the cause.

How, then, are we to advise white people — because this film is about advising and satisfying white people — about the everyday structural and interpersonal violences they mete out, even when they are not actually stringing us up from the nearest real and actual tree? That their continued ignorance — after all of this black writing and marching and singing and pleading and litigating with them to not be ignorant in a million different ways — is not just annoying but fundamentally violent? Why must I wait to die before they realize they are killing me? I can barely make a living because they are killing me, and my friends; we patch each other up with hugs and kisses and bourbon and chocolate and so, so, so much reassurance that we are right and good and okay and we will prevail for our children. Like our mothers and fathers and aunties and uncles, like Uncle Jimmy Baldwin, who thought they would prevail for us, their children and other kin. Like they did in some ways, but didn’t in others.

We die, by the hundreds, by the gun, the baton, the emotional stress, the trauma, the eviction, the diabetes, the cancer, the rage, the stares, the resentment, the little nervous laughs white folks have when we are still eloquent and joyful and beautiful. They wonder if we hate them and that wonder is heavy on us because it is the worst kind of gaslighting. They ask with their eyes, and sometimes directly, as happened to me recently after a lecture I had given: “Do you hate me for being ignorant to your suffering despite the fact that you have told me of it?” No, I am suffering, and to hate would take too much energy and I am weary. We die from white ignorance. We die from white refusal.

I suppose, perhaps, this is the “implied” violence. The violence that kills us slowly. Upside down car loans and mortgages. Payday loans. Thieving bankers opening up phantom accounts. That violence where we can’t stop the babies from coming and when they come, we can’t have them because we got to take care of the other babies. That violence that turns us against ourselves. That makes us yell at our children when we meant only to say softly that we just didn’t have the money for that activity this week but we would really, really, really like to provide you with that little thing you wanted, baby, because we want you to know you are loved despite what President Agent Orange says. That makes us eat and eat and eat and drink and drink and drink until we vomit and fall asleep on the floor next to that vomit. That makes us mad that we woke up the next morning because we got to clean ourselves up and get out there and face this shit again. I wonder how we might depict that in a documentary to make them know.

These days we call this kind of racial violence implicit bias. I suppose that’s like implied violence. The prospect of being outed as racist is hard for white folks, as though it’d be easier if black people weren’t around (dead, gone to Africa, so forth), so there wouldn’t be anyone to be racist against. But I’m still damned dead and someone is standing over me with a ghoulish smile, shocked but loving.

But I am not your negress. I am my own. And I think that is important to say amid all this clamoring that gawks at, consumes, and possesses black lives and deaths.

I Am Not Your Negro is playing in theaters across the US.

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