Over the past year, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about digital archives. As a HASTAC scholar for Vanderbilt’s Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities, I spent some time editing our digitally hosted archive, Who Speaks for the Negro. The archive contains a collection of audio files and transcripts that document interviews conducted by Robert Penn Warren during 1964 as he traveled around the United States talking with men and women who were involved in the Civil Right’s Movement. These files contain the raw conversations that would eventually be published in Robert Penn Warren’s 1965 manuscript, Who Speaks for the Negro.
Even for those (like myself) who are not scholars of the Civil Rights Era, it is hard not to be drawn in and captivated by an archive that allows you to hear the voices and stories of so many influential figures of our past. At the click of a button, I can hear the voices of Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, and Malcolm X. But I can also hear from those Civil Rights leaders whose voices are less familiar: Female activists like Septima Poinsette Clark and Clarie Collins Harvie, and also college students from Jackson State and Tougalloo College. On the one hand, my work with this archive has led me to consider how digital archives could be incorporated into our teaching (blog post coming soon!), but I have also been thinking about the unique power of voice—and here, I mean the auditory voice, the heard voice, as opposed to that which can be captured in writing.
I am reminded of this today, as I review a conversation I had with colleagues following our viewing of Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. Peck’s documentary reminds us of how powerful the human voice can be, and in particular, it shows us the extraordinary power of James Baldwin’s voice. As I left the theater, I remember saying out loud to a friend, “I wish that I could write and speak like James Baldwin.” There is something about Baldwin’s tone that transfers from word to sound, from audio to text; across mediums, I find his voice to be both captivating and persuasive. But it was not until after a 2-hour round-table discussion with fellow graduate students that I also began to think about the immense responsibility we take on when, whether as writers, teachers, film-makers, scholars, or critics, we attempt to preserve, reconstruct, or reposition these voices for dissemination to others. It is a task that as a humanist, I am extremely passionate about, but I realize that with this task comes risk and responsibility.
In what follows, I will offer a brief summary of that round-table discussion, but with an eye towards answering the question: Would I teach Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro and if so, how? (If you are interested in listening to the entire discussion, check back as I hope to have a link to the entire recording soon).
First, a bit about the film. Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro is a loose adaptation of Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House. The novel was to be a reflection on the lives of Medgar Evens, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. In a June 1979 letter, Baldwin suggested that with Remember this House, he wanted these three lives “to bang against and reveal one another as they did in life” (quoted in Woubshet). For his film, Peck takes this novel fragment along with excerpts from Baldwin’s entire corpus of writing and clips from various television appearances and interviews to weave together a narrative that links the civil-rights era to our contemporary moment. Indeed, spliced between Baldwin’s writings and appearances are images and recordings that document the racial tensions of the present. As Dagmawi Woubshet suggests in a review for The Atlantic, “The movie’s most gripping scenes intercut footage of police violence directed against black people in the ‘60s and shots of similar violence enacted today, using Baldwin’s words to collapse the distance between the two eras.”
The film received mostly positive reviews and managed to secure an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. A.O. Scott of the New York Times praised the film for its ability to place viewers “entirely in [Baldwin’s] presence, hanging on his every word.” Similarly, Ann Hornaday’s review in the Washington Post called the piece “an elegant, emotionally devastating film by Raoul Peck about James Baldwin” and claimed that its importance lies in its “fierce urgency, not just for the long unresolved history it seeks to confront, but also in its attempt to understand what is happening now.” Despite this consistent praise, other reviewers questioned the film’s representation (or non-representation) of Baldwin’s sexuality. “Blink” wrote Owen Gleiberman, “and you’ll miss the film’s one and only reference to [Baldwin's] sexuality.” And this failure “to complicate it’s audience’s view of Baldwin” is what Woubshet called the film’s “missed opportunity.”
On February 28th, 2017, a day after seeing the film for the first time, I gathered with an interdisciplinary group of humanities graduate students to have a conversation about the film. Representatives from English, Philosophy, and Religion participated in the discussion. Some of us conduct research that intersects with the authors, history, or ideas discussed within the film, but for others, the subject of the film was outside our area of scholarly expertise. All of us were very moved by the film, but we spent most of our discussion grappling with the complex issues that accompany an undertaking such as this. That is, while we generally agreed upon the importance of this film to our contemporary moment, we also raised many of the same criticisms as Gleiberman and Woubshet.
In particular, we spent considerably time contemplating both the audience and the subject of the film. Who was this film written for? And is this a film about James Baldwin? For the former, we discussed how this film might have been received differently by a white or a black audience. We also wondered what it means to make an Oscar nominated film? Does such a film automatically have to cater to a specific kind of audience, to a particular depiction of African-American experience? Finally, we considered our individual viewing experiences. For some, this film offered an alternative look at the Civil Rights Movement, but for others, watching this film was emotional and even traumatic. As one of the others put it: “If you’re black and you’re woke, guard your heart and guard your eyes. If you are a member of a different racial or ethnic group in this country, be prepared to have the film show you what it shows you.”
Another question we pondered over quite a bit was whether or not this film was actually about James Baldwin. This was a subject that we kept returning to. Like Gleiberman and Woubshet, we were puzzled and bothered by the erasure of Baldwin’s queerness. We realized that for some viewers, this would be an introduction to James Baldwin, and the fact that we are given an incomplete picture of Baldwin’s lived experience and values is something many of us found troubling. We also talked quite a bit about the implications of structuring the film around the figures of Medgar Evens, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. Such a move, we thought might risk de-centering Baldwin’s own important place within the movement by leaving him always on the edge of his own narrative. What’s more, focusing on these figures replicates a common gap within discourse surrounding the Civil Right’s Movement for it leaves out the important contributions made by black women, and thus, the film might inadvertently prevent audiences from seeing other narratives of black experience.
To return to my opening question: would I teach I Am Not Your Negro, and if so, how? Prior to our round-table discussion, I think I would have answered a definite yes. But, after our discussion, I think I would amend my initial response to: yes, but with caution. Such a film should be taught through a critical lens and with an awareness of the film’s ability to produce trauma through its representation of traumatic images and events. We might, however, use this film to usefully ask several important critical questions: who is represented within this narrative? Who is not represented? Does this film offer us a vision of America that we want now? Why might it have been that Baldwin never actually finished the novel? What do we gain from this particular interpretation of Baldwin’s corpus and his person? What do we lose? And finally, what critical work does Peck accomplish with his interpretation of Baldwin's work?
Despite our individual criticisms, I think we were all in agreement that Peck's documentary is a incredibly powerful and important film, and it opens up opportunities among individuals and in contemporary discourse for much needed discussions about race, history, and representation.