Step one: cleanse the skin?
Author, speaker, playwright and activist James Baldwin’s legacy has affected American consciousness for decades.
And while much of his most notable work was completed in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, Baldwin is everywhere today. Activists are inspired by him, authors are compared to him, and a new documentary ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ has received exuberant critical acclaim and an Academy Award nomination.
What’s behind this resurgence, and what makes his work so profoundly true in our present moment?
- Randall Kenan Author and Professor at UNC - Chapel Hill
- Alvin Hall Tv and radio broadcaster, writer, and financial educator
- Stew Tony Award and Obie Award winning playwright; singer-songwriter and guitarist.
- Jason Reynolds Author of "GHOST," a 2016 National Book Award finalist for Young People’s Literature.
Baldwin On Television
Both our show and the new documentary ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ use clips of Baldwin’s many television appearances. Television is a hungry medium, and in the 1960s, Baldwin’s thoughtfulness, his engaging presence, and his ability to speak knowledgeably on everything from history to economic development made him an ideal guest for shows.
[Note: These clips are of their time and feature many people who were outspoken on many topics, so be advised about language.]
One of the most engrossing clips available is the 1965 debate at Cambridge University between Baldwin and conservative William F. Buckley over the question “Has the American dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?”
This clip is interesting not only because it’s a debate about American civil rights between two Americans in front of an English crowd (students also speak), but because it shows at once how much and how little has changed since. Baldwin criticizes then examines Robert Kennedy’s assertion that the US could have a black President in 40 years, while Buckley seems fairly glib about the whole issue. As Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out “Buckley’s case against doing something about segregation, is basically the same case conservatives make today against doing anything that might alleviate black suffering — black people through their lack of initiative and penchant for having kids out of wedlock are doing it to themselves.”
Writing in Inside Higher Ed in 2012, John Warner declared Baldwin the clear winner of this debate.
This wasn’t Baldwin’s only time talking about the potential for a black President. In 1963, the KQED documentary ‘Take This Hammer’ captured Baldwin talking to a group of kids in San Francisco. One says there will never be a black President. Baldwin asks why he says that. “We can’t get jobs. How are we going to be President?”
One thing that has changed significantly since Baldwin’s time is the way television debates are presented. After the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Baldwin joined a cast of celebrities for a sober roundtable discussion. With him in this clip are Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier and a pipe-smoking Joseph Mankiewicz.
One of the most affecting scenes in ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ culminates with a clip of Baldwin discussing the fundamental moral problem underlying white racism, and the refusal of many white Americans to examine and acknowledge their own history. “What you have to look at is what’s really happening in this country and that is that brother has murdered brother knowing it was his brother,” Baldwin says. That clip came from this 1969 appearance Baldwin made at the West Indian Student Centre in London:
The film also includes a clip from the Dick Cavett show, when philosopher Paul Weiss is brought out to weigh in on some of Baldwin’s statements on race relations (again, a much different time for television). Weiss essentially argues that race is not the sole divider of culture. He says he would have more in common with a black philosopher than he would with a white man who hates philosophy, and says Baldwin would have more in common with a white author than he would with a black man who hates literature (David Edelstein compares this to David Brooks’ critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates). Baldwin’s response? Watch:
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Preet Bharara is the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.