A couple weeks ago I saw the new documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, which is based on an unfinished manuscript about race in America by James Baldwin. If you haven't heard of it or seen it yet, you can read more about it at PBS. Or you can watch it on Amazon, iTunes, or through some other online vendor, and I strongly encourage that you do. I saw the film at a church here in Minneapolis that is starting a monthly series about important films.
Close to one hundred people watched the film together and then broke into groups to discuss it. One of the lines from Baldwin that we focused much on was, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced." That line alone can generate lots of interesting discussion, particularly when you're a small group representing four different racial groups and ages across a 40-year time span.
Only two of us in the small group, myself included, were old enough to have lived during and remember some of the events from the 60s featured in the film, for example the Watts riots in LA in 1965 and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. It struck me then how important it is to talk about these kinds of events among different age groups, including those who remember these critical events in American history and those who have only read about them or heard about them, or maybe not even that. To talk about them about different races and people groups.
Another quote from the film that really hit me, but which we didn't discuss in our group, was this:
"We are cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. And we cannot possible become what we would like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty...."
Hmm...let's all take out a blank piece of paper and think with a pen about that for while.
I can sometimes delude myself that I have an understanding of racial issues owing to the fact that I spent a substantial part of my growing up years in the south during a period of racial "progress" and turbulence. I went to junior high in the first year of enforced busing in what was a very segregated community, was a high school senior the first year a black girl was crowned homecoming queen at my school–such a small but significant cultural event–and saw that not everyone around me clapped for her, and lots in between. In school we read Black Like Me and To Kill a Mockingbird; I saw the movies starring Sidney Poitier. Years earlier I had seen my (male) teacher cry the day Martin Luther King Jr was shot. But I really know so little.
Watch the documentary, and if you're white, find out what you really know, how much there is to know.
[Photo: Taken of a sidewalk in Red Hook, Brooklyn, NY]