U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“I Am Not Your Negro” and the erasure of women of color

Last week I saw “I Am Not Your Negro,” the documentary based on James Baldwin’s last, unfinished monograph. And it was powerful, juxtaposing images of capitalism and violence with interviews and film of James Baldwin. Baldwin’s last work was focused on the legacies of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X, all men who, importantly, did not make it to their 40th birthday.

The film was beautiful and shocking. But in every moment of the film, the presence of the masculine loomed large. After all, Baldwin’s last manuscript focuses on three male heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Of course, Baldwin had personal relationships with these three men, lending more to their lives and memories than most depictions. But a lack of discussion of the masculine impulses and construction of memory integral to the development of this movie, yet again, erases the importance of women and gender in the story.

There are mentions of women of color throughout the film, notably the death of Lorraine Hansbery, but they are just mentions. Even though Baldwin’s emotional response to Hansberry’s death was invoked, we learn nothing of her life or struggles or relationship with violence. I was left to google her cause of death after the film-cancer-at a very young age. But the lives and deaths of women and color were not seen as important or essential to the story.

Not only were the experiences of women erased from the narrative, but Baldwin’s sexuality was glossed over. This was particularly shocking because  he explored it in works like Giovanni’s Room. 

Although the film gave a seemingly complex depiction of Civil Rights and African American history in the 20th century-featuring starkly violent images and films of lynchings, the Rodney King beating, and others, they featured men, often straight men. The majority of women in the film were white women were used to contrast the violence against African American men, not women.

By not allowing violence against women of color to show through this film and to gloss over Baldwin’s sexuality, “I Am Not Your Negro” becomes yet another film that props up the importance of leaders in the movement, notably King, Malcom X, and Edgers at the expense of dealing with the complexity of women and gender in the story. It reifies the memory of the Civil Rights Movement as something lived by and for men, when women of color experienced and still experience unnamed and oft forgotten violence.

Further Reading:

The Atlantic’s review explores the lack of sexuality in the film https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/02/i-am-not-your-negro-review/515976/

Dr. Zandria Robinson’s powerful essay on the subject of gender and violence, “I Am Not Your Negress” http://newsouthnegress.com/notyours/

On the importance of Baldwin’s writing in 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/15/the-fire-this-time-legacy-of-james-baldwin