The other side of the wall.
I have yet to watch Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, the critically-acclaimed documentary on James Baldwin released last year, but if the collection of Baldwin’s writing that inspired the documentary—captured in the I Am Not Your Negro collection—is any indication, it is a documentary that needs to be seen by everyone.
Reading Baldwin’s I Am Not Your Negro was sobering and powerful. After the events of Charlottesville a few weeks ago, when I heard people proclaim “this is not the America I know,” I was reminded of this passage in the book:
White people are astounded by Birmingham.
Black people aren’t.
White people are endlessly demanding to be
reassured that Birmingham is really on Mars.
They don’t want to believe,
still less to act on the belief,
that what is happening in Birmingham
is happening all over the country.
They don’t want to realize that there is not one step,
morally or actually, between
Birmingham and Los Angeles.
This is, in fact, the America so many of us know.
When I hear that so many people have never met a black person, or a Muslim, or a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I am often astounded; I shouldn’t be, but it still comes as a surprise. I sometimes forget that not everyone had the luck and opportunity to go to school with people of various backgrounds—racial, ethnic, socio-demographic, etc.—and to forge deep friendships with them.
I think of the question often: is the lack of connection with “the other” because of a lack of access, or just a lack of desire? This passage in I Am Not Your Negro was resonant:
Most of the white Americans I’ve ever encountered, really, you know, had a Negro friend or a Negro maid or somebody in high school, but they never, you know, or rarely, after school was over or whatever came into my kitchen, you know. We were segregated from the schoolhouse door. Therefore, he doesn’t know, he really does not know, what it was like for me to leave my house, you know, to leave the school and go back to Harlem. He doesn’t know how Negroes live. And it comes as a great surprise to the Kennedy brothers and to everybody else in the country. I’m certain, again, you know…that again like most white Americans I have encountered, they have no…I’m sure they have nothing whatever against Negroes, but that’s really not the question, you know. The question is really a kind of apathy and ignorance, which is the price we pay for segregation. That’s what segregation means. You don’t know what’s happening on the other side of the wall, because you don’t want to know.
Worth repeating: “That’s what segregation means. You don’t know what’s happening on the other side of the wall, because you don’t want to know.”
Read this book. Without any hyperbole, it will change the way you think about the world.