To Whom It May Concern
The State Of Race Relations In America Through Mind Of James Baldwin and The Eyes Of Black Boys In Maryland
It’s not so much the personal sensibilities of the new president that are important. The misogyny, the bigotry, the willful ignorance and the continual wink and nod to “alt-right,” - read racist groups - that are noteworthy. It’s that so many have embraced and cheered these attributes and claimed them as their own.
After Barack Obama was elected, a familiar refrain from the Tea Party crowd was “I want my country back.” One has to wonder, is this what they had in mind? A rise in antisemitism, an attack on immigrants, and a posture hostile to the interests of women, Latinos, and African-Americans.
We are at pivotal moment in the life of our beautiful country, where we must again ponder the true nature of the American soul. Of course, we can point to similar moments: The Civil War, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement. After the dust settles from our episodic brutal and bloody divisions, there is a new normal that arises in our efforts to craft a more perfect union.
For the generations of this time the only real questions are what kind of people are we? What kind of country do we want America to become?
The essence of these queries scream loudly in the deftly executed film, “I Am Not Your Negro,” from director Raoul Peck. The narrative employs words and video clips of author and social critic James Baldwin to convey the saga of American race relations in the past and the present.
Peck shows us 60s era news clips of white mobs protesting against black people, while Baldwin’s words guide us through the spectacle. The scene transitions to white crowds at Donald Trump’s rallies cheering a clearly white nativist agenda that would make “All in the Family’s” Archie Bunker brim with pride. The Feb. 18 screening of the film hosted by 100 Black Men of Prince George’s introduced several dozen African American boys and other Maryland residents to the parallels between 1960s and 21st century America.
Those young men saw that these worlds are not far apart. It’s one of the key messages shared in the talk back after the filming. The divisions along color lines are not much better today than 50 years ago or 150 years ago. The images of attack dogs, cross burnings, lynchings and church bombings led these viewers to see the world through Baldwin’s eyes and then know that it is the same world they inherit.
We see the power and the terror of lynching as it was used to instill fear in the lives of black people. And now, there are moments where there is a steady stream of unarmed black people dying on video at the hands of police. How many times will it take to see black and brown bodies swing in the urban breeze to become inured to this horror?
The indifference to African-American life is clear. Many people of color chant Black Lives Matter, because the world needs to be reminded. The president maintains we need law and order. This sentiment is personified in his newly minted attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who Coretta Scott Kingthought unfit to serve as a federal judge because he would “irreparably damage the work of my husband.”
King, of course, was a peacemaker. Trump is a divider and disruptor. This gulf can only be bridged through the willingness of America’s best asset, its people.
The post-screening discussion was full of talk back that included words like “horror,” “frustration,” “anger” and “hopelessness” from the young men at the Magic Johnson Theater. But their mentors and leaders wouldn’t let it rest at that negative narrative and they are right. If Harriet Tubman could make over 200 trips to bring enslaved people out of bondage, can we do any less? If Baldwin could come back from the safe space of his life in France to face the racial disharmony at home, can we do any less?
In the intensity of these times, each of us must face our own racial and cultural fears to discover and rediscover the ties that bind us as people, and suppress the real and imagined things that separate us. At some point if America is to reach her truest heights, she will have to confront her race-based demons. That means white America will need to come to the table and push for a new dialogue about race – not just when riots are happening but at the family reunion and the workplace. We will have to gather together in this discussion to ward off the disaster of division and hate.
The future of our republic demands it.