“I at least still have faith we can create a more perfect union. Not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.” – Barack Obama, 60 Minutes
Glued like millions of others to the recent Jeffrey Goldberg interview of former President Barack Obama, I suddenly experienced one of those “Wait, where did I hear that before? “moments. And once I figured out the source, I thought wow, what a great time to finish a film review I started a while ago, spotlight a literary giant many know and as many don’t, and connect the then with the now.
Publicly unshaken about how he was contemptuously treated during his presidency as the first African American president, Obama’s comments during the interview struck a familiar bit of optimism that I had heard before, that of African American writer James Baldwin; he of international fame for his works, “Another Country,” “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” Evidence of Things Not Seen,” and “The Fire Next Time.”
As a protest novelist and essayist, Baldwin’s classic, “Letter from A Region of My Mind,” written in 1962, had a foreboding ring to it putting into historical context pressing social issues of today. It’s been cited several times lately by contemporary writers as a useful reference for those desiring to understand the bedrocks of systemic racism.
Baldwin’s chaotic life, complicated relationship with his stepfather, turbulent writings and blistering critiques of his works are well-documented and self-explanatory. From behind his manual typewriter in small rooms in Harlem, Martha’s Vineyard, France, Istanbul and other places, he cranked out essay after essay, best-seller after best-seller, while making and unselfishly doling out thousands of dollars to family, friends and hangers-ons leaving little for himself and left frequently destitute.
A master conversationist and intense debater, Baldwin was known to voice brilliant insights on the issues of the day, race in particular, in backroom bars in Greenwich Village, behind college lecterns, at the table with Dr. King, John and Bobby Kennedy, or during interviews with conservative commentator Willian F. Buckley, Jr. and poetess Nikki Giovanni. Glasses of Scotch on the rocks and overflowing ashtrays were always within reach.
Back to Obama, if there’s a single word that links the two – Obama and Baldwin – in my humble opinion it’s optimism in the face of pushback from things seen and, as Baldwin penned it, “things not seen.”
Now pause for a moment. Look at Baldwin’s picture here, at eyes that are unyielding, piercing and daring – think “If looks could kill.” They slice with surgeon-like precision through the haunting realities of racism, man’s inhumanity against humanity, the contradictions, the denials, the sordid racial history of the United States.
So with an apology for my getting late to the focus of this piece, Jimmy Baldwin’s eyes are the ones that stared out at us during the film, “I Ain’t Nobody’s Negro,” that debuted in downtown Atlanta a while ago. My wife Karen and good friends Wanda and Bernard occupied one row and were among the seven folks who sat in mesmerized silence in an otherwise empty theater.
As those eyes peered out from the screen clouded through a haze of smoke from a lighted cigarette, his constant companion lodged between bony fingers, a chill ran down my spine. Those are the eyes that can decide a face, a face that can switch from laughter through a toothy grin to sorrow, to anger or to rage depending on the situation, the moment, the demons within, or the culprit.
Those are the eyes that can display terror as when he hunched down in the backseat of a Chevy driving through Alabama during the turbulent Civil Rights movement.
Those were the eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses in the church pew during Dr. King’s funeral in Atlanta; eyes that darted nervously from side to side in fear, anger or probably /both.
In a genius in filmmaking, the producers weaved through “I Ain’t Nobody’s Negro” capturing Baldwin’s emotional reactions to the lives and deaths of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X and ultimately the bullets that snuffed out their young lives way to early, leaving widows, newly fatherless offspring and an African American (strike that, American) leadership gap that remains unfilled to this day.
Yet in his ending soliloquy, Baldwin emphasized resolutely that he remained optimistic about the future of America, the nation that traumatized him, the one he fled from to France into a self-imposed exile but returned to add a powerful voice to the struggles for Black equality in America.
And if right on cue before the film credit lines rolled, Baldwin looked away (as he does in the picture here), cigarette smoke furling around his face as the screen darkened and the theater lights came on. I searched his unsmiling face for answers to uncomfortable questions I knew I had no choice but to find on my own.
And slowly we rose from our seats deep in comprehension as to what just hit us, what to do now, and quietly left the theater and walked outside into the cool Georgia night.
Yes, Jimmy Baldwin’s eyes!
“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for that reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
– James Baldwin
© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer and co-founder of “The 26 Tiny Paintbrushes” Writer’s Guild.