by Gina Elbert
In 2017 James Baldwin is something of a hero reborn. Vastly popular when he was alive in the 1950s, ‘60s, ’70s, and ‘80s, his work was fading from view until it started to experience a resurgence this year. Considering recent social and political tensions, this might come as no surprise. His legacy, however, extends far beyond his participation in the civil rights movement and his moving novels. He has also touched thousands of readers and writers with his unique style, incredible life story, and extensive catalog of works.
In order to honor this legacy, on Tuesday, October 25, the English Department hosted a screening of the 2016 Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro. The screening, attended by three or four dozen students, was introduced by Baldwin’s niece Aisha Karefe-Smart, a public speaker, activist, cultural critic, and author of works such as Dining While Black. Noting how Baldwin himself was unable to attend college, Karefa-Smart emphasized the wealth of opportunities that are available to members of her and expressed admiration for their hard work. She expressed her wishes that every single student could, as many others have in the past, find something in Baldwin’s life or body of work that would strengthen and inspire them.
Her address was followed by a 93-minute showing of I Am Not Your Negro, which was based on a thirty-page manuscript that Baldwin was working on at the time of his death. It follows his involvement in the civil rights movement, specifically with his friends Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers, all of whom were assassinated before the age of 40. Samuel Jackson narrates letters written by Baldwin that supplement the manuscript, which director Raoul Peck pairs with clips from Baldwin’s television interviews, movies that illustrated his points about popular depiction of black characters, and other images. The film juxtaposed footage of the 1950’s and 1960’s civil rights movement with recent news videos about the Black Lives Matter movement and the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, prompting the audience to consider the relevance of Baldwin’s words in a new era.
Like all English department events, this event provided a welcoming atmosphere and food for thought for the many students who attended. The audience left with increased appreciation of and interest in the work of James Baldwin, a man whose words have proved to be timeless.