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22 February 2021 French Deal

JAMES BALDWIN AND « I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO »

For Black History Month, the Maison French Deal wishes to highlight personalities, stories and historical facts of Black Culture. Through this article, we invite you to discover the famous writer and activist James Baldwin as well as “I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO”, a documentary retracing the evolution of a racist America through the figures of the fight against segregation. 

James Baldwin, a youth filled with disillusionment 

James Baldwin was born in 1924 in New York, in the heart of a divided America and symbol of racial segregation. At that time, being a black person meant not being free, being banned from certain places, being afraid of dying under the blows of the police or the violence of the Ku Klux Klan.

Raised in Harlem, a poor neighborhood in New York City, James Baldwin was extremely intelligent and had a real gift for writing. Passionate about reading and books, he found refuge in libraries to escape his difficult daily life. And although his talent is quickly noticed, young Baldwin quickly realizes that the American dream will not be reserved for him, being black.

During his teenage years, he meets black artists who inspire him to follow his dreams and become a writer. At the age of 19, he witnessed the Harlem riots. He will remain marked for life by the police violence on the black community that he witnessed during these riots. In 1955, he published an essay on the subject: Notes of a Native Son.

A few years later, during his young adult life, James Baldwin, tormented by his homosexuality and realizing how difficult it was for a black and homosexual man to live in the United States, he decided to flee. His place of exile? France.

Feeling free at last, in France

Starting in 1948, James Baldwin lived in France and finally understood the meaning of the word freedom, in all its aspects. He surrounded himself with artists and intellectuals such as Josephine Baker and Maya Angelou and devoted himself fully to his passion: writing. He stayed in France for 8 years and published Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Giovanni’s Room (1956). These writings will remain symbols of an already very innovative thinking for the time, dealing with homosexuality, bisexuality but also identity and racism. 

In 1956, current events in his native country caught up with the writer. Following a significant decision of the Supreme Court, the country was experiencing unprecedented racial tensions. Two years earlier, Brown v. Board of Education had put an end to racial segregation in public schools. But white America wanted nothing to do with it and did everything it could to keep the segregation in place. James Baldwin is aware of this and sees the terrible images of the riots in Little Rock, Arkansas. Following these horrors, he decides to return to the country.

Back in the United States

Upon his return, James Baldwin left for the southern United States where he joined the civil rights movement. With this commitment to his people, he became friends with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers, a great leader in the fight against racial segregation in the United States and around the world. 

James Baldwin clearly displays his fight for civil rights for the black American population. A great writer and speaker, he debates tirelessly on various television programs to educate whites about the consequences of racism.

Thanks to the work of civil rights activists, things are slowly moving forward.

And in 1964, then U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, a law prohibiting racial discrimination and thus segregation.

Although aware of the movement’s progress in this struggle, terrible news turned James Baldwin’s life upside down. These 3 friends and fellow fighters Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, as well as President J.F. Kennedy, are successively assassinated. Baldwin decides to end the United States and returns to settle in France in 1970. And it was in his house in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the south-east of France that he continued to write until his death in 1987.

The documentary “I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO”.

In his last years of life, the famous writer James Baldwin began writing a book about America by drawing portraits of his three murdered friends, figures of the civil rights struggle: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. 

Based on this unfinished story, director Raoul Peck decided to rebuild Baldwin’s thinking from his notes, speeches and letters. Once all the elements were put together, he made a documentary entitled “I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO”. This film, released in 2017, was acclaimed worldwide, selected for the Oscars and won the César for best documentary in 2018. 

The French Deal House invites you to discover this documentary, dubbed by rapper JoeyStarr and currently available on Netflix.

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