2016 will, maybe, go down in history as one of the more macabre years. Pop culture’s gospel of the gone continues to have new names of note added, game changers in their chosen fields, gone forever.
After David Bowie, surely one of the most important artists of the last hundred years, one would have hoped the reaper would have taken a break. But Leonard Cohen, Victoria Wood, Prince, Alan Rickman, Natalie Cole, Glenn Fry, John Glenn, Harper Lee and a slew of others were taken.
If that wasn’t enough, trash culture took its revenge and gave the United States Of America its very first reality television President Elect. A man more akin to a Jersey Shore member than leader of the free world. This is a man so narcissistic, he makes Narcissus seem like George Costanza and so thin skinned, rather than spend his time learning about the nuances of world affairs, he would rather take aim at a New York play and a skit on Saturday Night Live. His score-settling 3 a.m. Twitter rants would make even the most melodramatic of teenagers explode with shame.
It’s now often being mooted that somehow we have found ourselves in Biff’s (Back To The Future) alternate reality and it’s hard to disagree. It would seem, virtually, every tie with America’s 20th Century renaissance is being carelessly cut .Climate change is being called fantasy, while creationism is being touted as fact. Racism is validated by the words and actions of the rich, whom set the narrative for the poor . The Church, going against science (again), claim homosexuality can be cured by therapy . The implication is, of course, every homosexual should seek to be cured, for they are “sick.” The anti-abortionists are often the same people who loudly promote war, thus showing that they aren’t “pro-life” at all. Merely pro-men, controlling women’s bodies.
However, try as they may, those that seek to divide, control and enslave can’t quiet the voices of the past, the spectral grasp on the imagination and the ghosts of hope that continue to inform the present and give power to change the future.
One of last century’s most intelligent and strident American commentators was poet, playwright and author James Baldwin. Born to poverty with several brothers and sisters, his mother, Emma Berdis, left his biological father due to his father’s serious drug addiction. They moved to Harlem, where she met the preacher David Baldwin. Going by the writings of James, it would seem that his adopted father treated him more harshly than he did the rest of the children. Some have suggested that this was because James was homosexual.
Being poor, black and homosexual gave Baldwin the deepest meaning of the word “outsider” and taught him to see beyond the accepted way of things, as well as helping fuel his drive to create. In his twenties, Baldwin would grow weary of America’s seemingly inherent racism, sexism and homophobia (and not wanting to fall into the boring ghetto of being known as a “gay ” or “black” writer), moved to France, where in 1987 he would die of stomach cancer.
James Baldwin knew to know yourself is to know others. To know the “advantage” white America exerts, is to see clearly the “disadvantage” black America suffers and vice versa. In short, to know the established narrative is to have the potential to change the established narrative.
Sadly, Baldwin is needed just as much now as he was when he was alive. In terms of racism, not much has changed between the 1960s and 2016. The fact that in the new millennium there needs to be a movement called “Black Lives Matter” is horrific in and of itself.
Director Raoul Peck, recognising all of this, has made Baldwin the subject of a timely documentary called I Am Not Your Negro. This film is an extended adaptation of Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript (the author’s death arrived before the completion) entitled “Remember This House.” The film seeks to intertwine the lives of Megar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X in the process telling the tale of black America and, therefore of course, the tale of America in general.
Naturally, Peck draws on many of Baldwin’s poetic and astute texts and impressive television appearances of which many can be found on YouTube. They can dazzle the dead and teach the living. Baldwin’s lessons are many and what is learnt are truths that travel the centuries.
To get to any truth, to any reality, takes honesty and courage, as Baldwin says,
“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
“I Am Not Your Nigger” – Trailer