This was originally posted as a Facebook comment. I’ve revised it some.
I just saw the James Baldwin documentary, I am not your Negro, and I want to share what I think is his main point.
I want to share because I agree with critics that this adds a missing angle and depth to race conversations. Frustratingly though, none of the reviews I’ve read detail what this missing angle is. I wonder if that is because they are missing a more basic element of Christian worldview with which Baldwin was certainly raised. It could also be that as movie critics their goal is to get you to watch and not spoil the ending. But I don’t think I’m spoiling anything in sharing this point. My hope is that I am clarifying it and thus helping you understand it or at least mull on it, so that it can be become more a part of common discourse, because it’s a crucial point.
I think James Baldwin’s basic point is this: Race or the legacy of slavery is not just a problem for blacks in America, but for all of America.
Blacks were the co-founders of this country: their literal toil and effort made it an economic powerhouse. Their free (and later, cheap) labor made the so-called American Dream possible for so many, including people like me. And yet, they were excluded from this dream themselves.
Slavery was kind of a deception, a moral compromise that we’re still paying for today. Baldwin seemed to imply that deep in the heart of whites (and “honorary whites,” because I need to include myself as an Asian American here), whites knew that we were playing a sketchy moral game. We knew deep down to treat your fellow human being, and often your blood brothers and sisters so badly…as literal property, as animals shackled, as “things” with no feelings or capabilities…to shrug off their murders…as subhuman…we knew deep down this was wrong. And yet, it was the only way we could think of to keep up our standard of living, our very lives. Our actions, even in brief and unusual bursts but perhaps more common in banal daily interactions, certainly mold and shape us. These actions show our heart—and as we are all made in the image of God, that image of God in our hearts (and all the more so, that Christ in our heart if we are Christians) tugs at us. It tugs at us because deep down we know something is not right. How we treat human beings, who we talk to, how we talk to people, how we interact with others, especially the least of these, not only changes how we are as individuals, as souls, but because individuals make up groups, it changes our families and communities. Whether we like it or not, our treatment and view of others gets modeled and copied and passed down. Whites and honorary whites don’t just treat blacks badly, but other minorities and other people in general. This includes their own families and most especially themselves.
This is what I think Baldwin thinks is the main problem. This lack of reckoning, in the white and honorary white heart is what is making us sick. It is more than a lack of reckoning. It is first a lack of awareness, a lack of a desire to pay attention to the uncomfortable quibble of conscience that after repeated brushes hardens and goes away. It is an insistence to not to consider it, to not even wonder, but to live in denial.
As a Christian, I believe that I am not always aware of how sinful I really am; I am often deluded about myself. But it is good to realize my sin, because my sin not only keeps me from God, but it is making me sick. It is not only good to realize my sin, it is a gift, a grace from God. It is an opportunity to turn and die before my sin is makes me sicker and sicker. It is an opportunity to become more like Christ, to be and live more authentically the new life that God is calling me into. Sin, sinful tendencies, murmurings in the heart…they keep us from God and the life and the calling God has for us. I think this true of all human beings—we are not aware always aware of our sin, and denial makes us sicker. It is makes us more fearful than we need to be. It is makes us more and more irrational as our outsized and unchecked negative feelings take over. Lack of awareness of our sinful tendencies, the sin in our hearts keeps us from knowing tangibly and in our everyday lives God’s perfect love that casts out all fear. Over time, it makes us less and less human, further and further from our true selves as we were created to be, and definitely, very far from becoming like Christ.
Baldwin does not call himself a Christian, but certainly was exposed to plenty of Christian theology. And this lack of desire to see, this continued living in denial is what seems to bother Baldwin. What does this do to a white or honorary white person who continues to not see and therefore, not reckon? If we do not see and reckon, we continue to perpetuate the seeds of sin. Sin is the path of destruction not just for us individuals, but for everyone we interact with. He is worried because these interactions that add up and embed themselves in institutions, companies, governments, churches, schools, families and systems that make up America. He is worried about America as a whole.
America, because it started with this very sin, can only grow as much as it deals with it. America’s lack of dealing with it limits true and real American growth. This is why to Baldwin, race is not just a black problem, but a problem at the very heart of what is America.