Why James Baldwin Matters More Than Ever

Nelson Lowhim, Writer & Veteran

Nelson Lowhim, Writer & Veteran

In the aftermath of the latest attacks in Europe [1], the usual platitudes and xenophobic accusations were launched. And as everyone tried to act as innocent as newborn babies—I’m speaking historically here, though I suppose it could count for the blood currently wetting our hands as well—I felt once again as if I were living in some matrix where people are surely possessed. And it’s at times like these where I look to some other artists for a little inspiration, or perhaps a lifeline from the crazed citizens and politicians—all apes, afterall—in our world. Among many writers today, even fellow veterans, I see few with the moral courage required for such times—the best of them want to split the difference between left and right. Sigh.

No, one of the first who I must look to is James Baldwin, a writer I found through a random Google search and whose counterpart we’re severely missing today. Who this century has his eloquence and, more importantly, his insight, his moral courage? No one I know. It was with this in mind that I went to watch I am Not Your Negro, an essay documentary about Baldwin and his friends, leaders of the Civil Rights movement, who were murdered in the 60s.

Now, I’ll admit that when I first walked out of the theater I didn’t think much of it, the film seeming a weak cousin to his brilliant writing. But as the filter of time tends to do with classics, the film has grown in stature. Moments like the inane rage and platitudes following the attacks in England only serve to highlight the film’s ingenuity. It isn’t just when Baldwin speaks that the film resonates. No, it’s the juxtaposition of the hypocritical images from Hollywood—the embodiment, for the self, of much of our country and certain classes in the world, along with the real actions of those people—with images of lynching and the other bedtime stories, that really make the film worth a look.

It was just these images of which I didn’t think much when walking out of the theater. And if I may be so bold as to stake a claim: as a wordsmith, I initially thought that the new words I’d heard, especially those directly from Baldwin’s mouth, were the only things worthwhile about the film. Perhaps, thought I, this could corral some of those not familiar with his works towards reading some Baldwin.

But I now see that this is not the case. It is exactly those visual juxtapositions which I mentioned that are needed in this world where images say a thousand words, even if those words are lies. In other words, with broadband internet and the ubiquity of propaganda images, we need Baldwin, and you need to watch I am Not Your Negro as soon as possible.

Now you may be asking what this has to do with terrorists. Of course, the documentary doesn’t specifically say a lot about foreign policy, but that doesn’t require much extrapolation or intelligence or a combination thereof to find. His essential diagnosis remains: we are a sick people who must come to grips with our reality and history, lest we fall from grace or simply go murderously mad from not being able to understand our world, to say nothing of leaving a better one for the future generations of humankind.

[1] Time and the physics of blowback and austerity have, unfortunately, caused this word “latest” to do a lot of work.


Nelson Lowhim is a veteran and writer. He is the author of many novels, short stories and essays to include CityMuse, The Struggle, 1000001 American Nights and the Labyrinth of Souls. You can find more about him and his work at nelsonlowhim.blogspot.com