I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin, and Intersectionality in the Civil Rights Movement
This paper was originally written for the “Race & Gender in American Film” course within the Film and Media Studies graduate program at Arizona State University, completed December 4, 2020.
Raoul Peck’s 2016 feature documentary I Am Not Your Negro captures, with stunning faithfulness, part of author and activist James Baldwin’s essence. Based on an unfinished Baldwin memoir of sorts, parts of which are narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the film examines Baldwin’s commentary on race relations during the 1960s through his association with the three most prominent black leaders of the decade. Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and their deaths, serve as touchstones for key moments in Baldwin’s personal and professional lives, in addition to greater societal impact. But Peck’s choice of narrative, one that admittedly does come by way of Baldwin himself, doesn’t fully embody the intersectional nature of a movement such as Black Lives Matter, which Peck draws comparison to in his film. But that is not to say the documentary does not succeed in making compelling points on the subject of race and African Americans’ treatment in their own country. I Am Not Your Negro reinforces the male-focused narrative of the civil rights movement and omits more than a passing mention of Baldwin’s homosexuality while also delivering a powerful visual and aural tribute to Baldwin, the aforementioned leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, and the highest ideals they collectively held.
If I Am Not Your Negro seems to exclude black women, some attribution should be made to Baldwin, who often refers to the struggle for equal rights with male pronouns in the excerpts from talk shows and lectures that serve as the portals to his own voice. There is something to be said for grounding the fight in a personal manner; Baldwin is, after all, expressing his own frustration with how the country treats him as an indictment of the treatment of millions of other black Americans. But Baldwin, as with other black leaders then and now, was at times taken to task for his male-centric arguments.
In 1971, Baldwin and female poet and activist Nikki Giovanni sat down for a two-hour, filmed conversation for television show Soul!. Giovanni, for part of the conversation, took Baldwin to task for his and other black activists’ centering of race around the male experience. Baldwin, for his part, appeared apologetic and understanding of the issue. But what this conversation revealed, even in the case of the hyper-intelligent Baldwin (who experienced another layer of oppression as a homosexual man), was a divide between the semi-disparate black civil rights movement and black feminism. Giovanni illustrated a crucial, missing facet of the fight for equality, while being mindful of the issues both black men and women face. “The complexity of multiple identities was not consistently present in any of these movements, although African American women were addressing concepts concerning multi-faceted oppressions during this time period,” wrote Donna Langston (159).
This example of Baldwin and Giovanni’s conversation is mentioned in such detail because, in an admittedly vast body of speaking engagements and writings, it is omitted from I Am Not Your Negro. This Soul! episode is often cited as a phenomenal demonstration of both Baldwin’s failings and intelligence, but it wouldn’t necessarily fit into Peck’s intersection of the lives of Baldwin, Evers, X, and King. However, Peck, and Baldwin by extension, are of course not entirely dismissive of women. Peck does, if briefly, reckon with his own male-focused story. In one segment of the documentary, Baldwin, given voice by Jackson, describes a meeting he and Lorraine Hansberry, female playwright and activist, had with Robert Kennedy, then Attorney General in his brother John F.’s administration. Her strength in dealing with one of the most powerful men in the country acknowledges the role of black women in the civil rights movement. However, “the film’s brief consideration of Lorraine Hansberry has none of the immediacy of its accounts of men,” wrote Clare Corbould (154). Indeed, moments like this are presented in the vast minority in I Am Not Your Negro.
In even more brief asides, Peck and Baldwin express remorse for the fortunes of the wives of Evers, X, and King. Jackson narrates Baldwin’s tender sentiments for Myrlie Evers, Betty X, and Coretta Scott King, as well as their children. It is a tacit understanding of the difficulty of the lives of black women, left to continue on in the event of the murder of their husbands. Humane and certainly not dismissive of the black woman’s experience, these moments nevertheless demonstrate civil rights movement narratives’ tendency to leave out black feminism, perhaps by unconscious bias. In Peck’s case, it may simply be in deference to the source material. “The film’s shortcoming around women and gender is partly due to Peck’s choice to frame it as being inspired by one of Baldwin’s unfinished projects…an account of the lives and assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.” (Corbould 154).
“Black feminists offer intersectionality to highlight how multiple social dimensions are interdependent and interlocking,” wrote Linda Steiner (366). Ironically, the ostensible intersectional failings of I Am Not Your Negro represent a missed opportunity to represent Baldwin himself more fully; as a gay black man, the author certainly falls into the theory that his perceived identity by others can ultimately affect his social standing. As with gender, sexuality is only briefly mentioned as part of the Peck/Baldwin narrative of I Am Not Your Negro.
There are really only three notable moments where I Am Not Your Negro addresses Baldwin and/or black men’s sexuality. Baldwin’s own homosexuality comes in the form of an incredibly brief mention. In a segment covering Baldwin’s formative years in Paris, Jackson, by way of the writer, mentions walking the streets with “Lucien.” Lucien is Lucien Happersberger, Baldwin’s bisexual partner for most of his life, besides a brief period where Happersberger was married to a woman. I Am Not Your Negro need not be fixated on Baldwin’s sexuality, since it is not a full representation of his life. But it is a notable part of his public figure because of how often he integrated gay or bisexual themes into his novels and writing. Furthermore, even if Baldwin didn’t strive to write about gayness, his own sexuality was to be perceived by others, and that intersection between being gay and black provided Baldwin a unique struggle. And so the omission of more explicit discussion of Baldwin’s relationships is so much more glaring because the film otherwise so faithfully recreates the essence of its subject’s philosophy and beliefs.
In fact, the documentary fits into a narrative of the Civil Rights Movement that elevates black, heterosexual men nearly exclusively. But as Christopher Stuart writes, Baldwin actually professed a belief in a predecessor of the theory of intersectionality, which accounts for the numerous factors that contribute to an individual’s social standing. “To insist on the labels of race or sexuality, Baldwin contends, is only to ‘reinforce the brutal and dangerous anonymity of our culture,’ for in assigning ourselves to rigid categories we deny our inevitably individual identities that are the result of our common human nature” (Stuart 56). Stuart recognizes these arguments as the outgrowth of Baldwin’s time in Paris, which also included the beginning of his relationship with Happersberger. Baldwin’s reckoning with his own sexuality also informed his broader ideas on race and America. Baldwin understood that “as a black American homosexual, he was doubly imprisoned” (Stuart 59). I Am Not Your Negro does not truly address this second element of imprisonment.
But it could not be claimed that Peck does not attempt to understand the perception of black (male) sexuality. Especially in the context of white male fragility, Peck highlights the emasculating tendencies of American media both through Baldwin’s own voice, and his writing by way of Jackson’s. “…For a Negro, there’s no difference between the North and South,” Baldwin says in one clip. “There’s just a difference in the way they castrate you. But the fact of the castration is the American fact.” This sentiment grounds black sexuality in the male experience, but Baldwin of course has a point.
Peck constantly remediates throughout I Am Not Your Negro with footage from old movies, news coverage, and advertisements, and in this segment, he employs the images of black men that dominated media for decades. They were often shown as bumbling, asexual cowards, and as Baldwin explains, he hated this depiction of the kind of men he knew were not really like that. In fact, emasculating black men continued as a way to discredit the Civil Rights Movement. “…A more typical technique of the FBI was the use of poison-pen letters or leaflets that outed gays in the movement to fellow activists or reporters or raised the issue of homosexuality to sow division within the movement and between organizations” (Leighton 151). And in the only other direct mention of Baldwin’s gayness in I Am Not Your Negro, Peck displays the FBI’s contemporary records on the writer, suggesting the use of his homosexuality to discredit him.
So, it should be made clear, Peck does not overtly ignore Baldwin’s homosexuality. In being beholden to Remember This House, it could even be argued that I Am Not Your Negro is faithful to Baldwin’s potential intent to not make his sexuality the forefront of a narrative about the Civil Rights Movement. But as a work that goes beyond the bounds of Baldwin’s writing, and one that also expands the story to include other parts of Baldwin’s life and career, it is telling that homosexuality does not feature prominently into the film. It is part of an evident lack of intersectionality in the 1960s, made more glaring by the connections to Black Lives Matter that Peck makes. I Am Not Your Negro’s treatment of Baldwin’s sexuality is fitting, due to his own intersectional notions that contend that he doesn’t want to be constrained to one identity, but also contradictory to the expansive progressivism of both Baldwin and Peck.
But if I Am Not Your Negro is a great critical success, in that it strongly argues against even the casual or unconscious racism of the white American, it is because it successfully focuses on its central author and the lives of his three friends and leaders. There are no talking heads to reinforce the potency of Baldwin’s message today: there are just Jackson’s narration, clips of the man himself, and visuals and audio from the media artifacts that Peck found useful in telling the story.
This form, almost a video essay more than it is a traditional documentary in the way many would expect, reflects Baldwin’s philosophies on creativity. As a black artist himself, Peck is honoring not only the activist work Baldwin undertook, but also his creative side. He dedicates a few moments here and there to the narration of Baldwin’s letters to his agent about the process of writing Remember This House (the aforementioned manuscript). This makes the documentary as much about Baldwin and the three “Ms” of the Civil Rights Movement, not just one or the other, as Remember This House would have been. That is to say, both Peck and Baldwin ostensibly transform this work into a memoir of sorts. I Am Not Your Negro, by acknowledging the tremendous gains Baldwin made as a black artist, embodies the words Baldwin wrote himself in the 1962 essay “The Creative Process.” “The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”
Two lasting artifacts of Baldwin, widely circulated on social media and news sites on the occasion of his birthday or the anniversary of his death, are television appearances in which he intellectually takes a bite out of white men. The first is an episode from The Dick Cavett Show, in which he challenges the assertion, from philosopher Paul Weiss, that one should not identify themselves simply by “superficial” factors like “black,” “white,” “male,” “female,” and so on. Baldwin’s response is one he must have given, in some form, to hundreds of “well-meaning” white liberals at the time. He essentially tells Weiss that he must make strides as a black man because others would try to limit his progress because he is a black man. It is an echo of intersectional theory that Baldwin himself prototyped and would be reexamined through.
In any event, a central theme of I Am Not Your Negro appears to be that Baldwin spent much of his life, as an intellectual himself, having to educate the mostly white academia and literati that surrounded him in his chosen field. In this Dick Cavett clip, you can see the evolution of a naive sentiment, one that Baldwin detailed in his 1955 essay “Notes of a Native Son.” “[Baldwin’s father] warned me that my white friends in high school were not really my friends and that I would see, when I was older, how white people would do anything to keep a Negro down…I did not feel this way and I was certain, in my innocence, that I never would.”
Baldwin’s older, passionate rebuttal to his youthful idealism can also be seen in another significant clip Peck employs in I Am Not Your Negro. Interestingly, the director does not use footage of William F. Buckley Jr., the prototype for the rightward shift of the Republican Party, during Buckley and Baldwin’s debate at Cambridge University in 1965. Instead, Peck just shows Baldwin’s fired up response, in which he details the reality of being black in America. It echoes the writer’s own words (as communicated by Jackson) elsewhere in the documentary, as he explains he could not hate white people quite like X could in their earlier years of knowing each other. It was X that softened, Baldwin/Jackson says in I Am Not Your Negro, echoing his writing for “Notes of a Native Son.” “In order really to hate white people, one has to blot so much out of the mind — and the heart — that this hatred itself becomes an exhausting and self-destructive pose.”
If there is omission of critical components of the Civil Rights Movement in I Am Not Your Negro, such as the importance of black women or the nuance in the sexuality of black men, some credit must be given to Baldwin’s own, and it should be mentioned, unfinished perspective on the story. In picking up the torch, however, Peck also misses these factors, even from his modern perspective. But as an examination of race, both past and present, the film benefits greatly from its subject’s intellect and foresight. In relying so heavily on a singular subject, indebted as he is to three others, the film transcends the pure commentary on race into a territory where it examines the genesis of such thoughts. That is to say, Peck demonstrates how Baldwin thought, not just what he thought, marking I Am Not Your Negro as a faithful representation of Baldwin’s own fusion of personal experience and societal analysis.
Baldwin, James. “The Creative Process.” Creative America, Ridge Press, 1962.
Baldwin, James. “Notes of a Native Son.” Notes of a Native Son, Beacon Press, 1955.
Corbould, Clare. “I Am Not Your Negro.” Australasian Journal of American Studies, vol. 36, no. 1, July 2017, pp. 152–155.
Langston, Donna. “Black Civil Rights, Feminism and Power.” Race, Gender & Class, vol. 5, no. 2, 1998, pp. 158–166.
Leighton, Jared. “‘Character Assassins’: How the FBI Used the Issue of Homosexuality against the Black Freedom Struggle.” Journal of Civil and Human Rights, vol. 2, no. 2, 2016, pp. 151–185.
Steiner, Linda. “Feminist Media Theory.” The Handbook of Media and Mass Communication Theory, edited by Robert S. Fortner and P. Mark Fackler, John Wiley & Sons, 2014.
Stuart, Christopher. “Finding the Jimmy in James: How James Baldwin Discovered ‘Giovanni’s Room’ in Lambert Strether’s Paris.” MELUS, vol. 40, no. 2, 2015, pp. 53–73.