“I Am Not Your Negro” (2017) and Useable Pasts

I Am Not Your Negro (2017), Raoul Peck’s documentary film inspired by the life, work, and vision of James Baldwin, is a masterpiece. I have really been looking forward to seeing this film, as I have heard so many good things about it. I watched it this evening, as it was finally fully released today. Here I share a few immediate thoughts. 

I Am Not Your Negro and its polemic, poetic, intellectual nature demands much from its audiences. It demands attentiveness, flexibility, an open-mind, and patience. It’s far from your typical documentary (or blockbuster). It makes people think and reach their own conclusions. Peck’s film most reminded me of Beyoncé’s insighful film Lemonade (2016).

I Am Not Your Negro address the hopes and fears of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, in addition to those of James Baldwin. It also addresses state-sanctioned violence spanning the entirety of United States History. And much more. 

Most of all, I really appreciate that I Am Not Your Negro did not adhere to a conventional timeline.

(With my work on historical memory and now with having spent a semester teaching my Texas History course backward, I am more and more interested in approaches to history that do not follow linear, left-to-right timelines. When people think about the past they do so in “random” snapshots. People actually learn most of what they will ever learn about the past in anything but a chronological, linear, left-to-right fashion.)

I Am Not Your Negro assembles history not to teach or adhere to such modern, professional philosophies of history but to create useable pasts. I Am Not Your Negro helps makes sense of the past (including what some would call the present or current events), helps organize the information in interesting, understandable ways, and helps people make creative connections. Thus, the film constantly moves forward and backward through time and place. 

I Am Not Your Negro is required viewing for anyone concerned about the past or open to further learning about the cruel, cruel and ignorant ways in which the United States has treated its Black members. If anything, hopefully, people will realize after watching I Am Not Your Negro that racism toward non-White people has absolutely not improved, that While people are, as Dr. Koritha Mitchell says, held to very low standards, and that Black people are always active agents fighting for change. 

You can watch the trailer here.

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda