February 22

I am Not Your Negro – review and extra credit

“There are days — this is one of them — when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it.” – James Baldwin, 1963.

This film, I am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck, is a testament to James Baldwin’s brilliance.  It in one fell swoop places him within the context of the Civil Rights Movement and also as someone who was a latecomer to its activism (though he fought racism through his words while living in France).  He was one of America’s leading intellectuals and social critics and found a way to cut through the baloney, the white ignorance of the time, the cluelessness, like a knife.  At once, the film is a unique history of the CRM, of the past sixty years of race, and also it’s a warning for us today that we still have racial problems left festering.

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”

The film’s narrative is loosely based upon Baldwin’s attempt to write a history of the CRM using his friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. King, as touchstones.  Apparently, Baldwin only got as far as 30 pages of notes before he gave up on the project in 1979.  What shocked me (though I knew this fact in the back of my mind, being a history teacher) was the fact that all three men were killed before they hit the age of 40.  As someone who is almost 50, I am both in awe and in shock of how much these three men had accomplished in such a short span.

The film begins with Baldwin’s appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in 1968 as the host earnestly implores Baldwin as to where there might be a glimmer of hope in race relations.  Baldwin smiles that toothy grin and kind of shakes his head as if to say he doesn’t know.  But he does.  What Dick Cavett asked him is probably indicative of what other white people have asked themselves during and since the CRM – when will Black people be satisfied with the advances that their race has made?   When Cavett brings an older, white professor of philosophy to come on, all he does is whitesplain the problem of race in America to Baldwin.  Below is Baldwin’s response:

At an interview with Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1963, James Baldwin and playwright Lorraine Hansberry (among others) were gathered together to discuss improving race relations, a “quiet, off-the-record, unpublicized get-together of prominent Negroes”.  JFK was still thinking about 1964 and running again, so he couldn’t look like he was kowtowing to Black people for fear of losing the Southern vote, yet he still had to appear to be leader of ALL Americans. The meeting took place in late May, soon after the film footage of the Children’s Crusade was broadcast to the nation – blasting Black children with water from fire hoses and attacking protestors with dogs.  This meeting, though just briefly mentioned in the film, seems like a typical Kennedy maneuver where the Kennedys do something on the surface but don’t seem to understand the deeper, underlying causes.  The actors and activists at the meeting were told by Robert Kennedy that maybe in forty years there might be a Black president.  Baldwin’s answer, two years later in a debate with William F. Buckley, conservative critic, is telling:

“From the point of view of the man in the Harlem barber shop, Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday and now he is already on his way to the Presidency… We were here for 400 years and now he tells us that maybe in 40 years, if you are good, we may let you become President.” – 1965

It reminds me of something that I had heard once that, when asked, how many more women did Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg feel need to be on the court in order to make women feel equal?  Her answer was nine, with the rationale that the Supreme Court had been all male for 190 years, it’s time to make up some ground.  In the same respect, maybe we need a string of minority presidents of women and people of color to help make America more equal.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

There was a telling scene, a powerful scene, when Baldwin was talking about growing up in Harlem and watching his friends die way too early.  Then, the film cuts to snapshots of modern young Black Americans, all cut down before their 18th birthday, like Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, and ends with someone holding up a sign that says “We Live in a Police State” or something to that effect.  There are shots of the Ferguson disturbances interspersed with shots of white police officers clubbing Black people on the streets of Oakland, California and Birmingham, Alabama, ramming home the message that though we whites might think this awful string of police brutality is relatively new in America, it’s not.  Now, more things are just being caught on video than ever before.

“I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all.” 

Baldwin’s social critiques of the nation in the film are just as prescient as they were fifty years ago, maybe even more so.  Because the film is so dense, with layers of meaning and visuals and voice overs going on all at the same time, I feel like I would need to see this film two or three more times to get the entire message.  But one scene struck me, as Baldwin decries the vacuousness of American life, about how that once we discover how pointless life is with an accumulation of stuff, we’ll go crazy.  As he says this (with narration by Samuel L. Jackson), there is some colorful movie with white people dancing all around, and then he cuts to a scene from Gus Van Zant’s 2003 film, Elephant, about a Columbine-like school shooting.

“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

One of the things that Baldwin stresses the most, where I think he is most consistently portrayed in the film, is his undying belief that it is our humanity that ties us all together.  Peck, the filmaker does an excellent job of contrasting how two different groups of people can see the same thing and view it differently, so I am certain that my film review would be markedly different than a Black film critic (I’m not calling myself a critic, I just love movies).  And it is this underlying humanity and how we figure out who we are in America is what seems to fascinate Baldwin the most.  This humanity is what ties us together, and because of it, we are inextricably woven as a fabric in one piece in American history. To separate the strands between white, black, brown, red, yellow, is to render the fabric useless.

For extra credit, see the film and answer three of the questions below (you must answer #2 as one of the three): 

  1. How did films shape how James saw the world when he was younger?  Also, how are films, especially ones with the great actor Sidney Poitier, used?
  2. How does this film act as a history of the Civil Rights Movement from 1955 – 1968?  How is it not a history but yet the story of James Baldwin?
  3.  One of the things that the film brings up is how white and black people see things differently, specifically using the pivotal scene in the movie, The Defiant Ones.  How do you think your perception of this film is different than somebody of another color?  Why?
  4. “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”  Explain whether or not you agree with this quote and why.

Blog is due by Friday night, March 10.  350 words minimum.  

May 27

Hurricane Katrina – When the Levees Broke

We started watching around 8:15 on Thursday after the quiz. It ends on Friday w/ the arrival of General Honore in New Orleans at 1:46:00. There will also be a discussion w/ the article, “Does George W. Bush Care about Black People?” by Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, and a look at some statistics and quotes on poverty and its relationship to the hurricane.

Also, here is No End in Sight. We watched the whole thing on Tuesday / Wednesday.

Inside Job, the documentary on the financial meltdown in 2008. We’ll watch the whole thing Tuesday / Wednesday, June 7/8.

December 14

Blog # 28 – Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth”

In Andrew Carnegie’s essay, “Gospel of Wealth” originally published in 1889, discussed the steel king’s attitudes towards the working class, the loss of the cottage industries that doomed his father’s weaving craft, and why the capitalist system back then (and by extension even now) is better than what they had.  He also then goes on to explore three different ways that the wealthy have disposed of their extra income when or before they die, and he explains why he feels which one is the best. 

 Back in the apprentice / master days, Carnegie states that the relationship between the two was more equal.  They shared the same work space, the same hardships, and the same successes.  But, as specialization and factories expanded, the cottage industries with their hand crafted goods could not compete with the factories’ cheaply priced goods and eventually had to adapt or go out of business (which sounds a lot like what happened in Carnegie’s experience).  A third option that occurred was to violently resist the change like some weavers and other workers had done when they destroyed the machines in the early 19th Century (the Luddites).  In the Carnegie’s case, they adapted and headed for America where some of their family had already had some success. 

The problem with working in factories, according to Carnegie, is that the owner no longer works side-by-side with the workers in the factories.  There’s a huge gulf between “the palace of the millionaire and the cottage of the laborer” and this is beneficial to all, he believes.  He uses a visit to a Sioux Indian tribe as an example where the chief’s dwelling wasn’t very different from the rest of his peoples’ “wigwams.”  By this, Carnegie inferred that Americans are advancing in civilization because not only are there cheaper goods for all, but that:

“This change, however, is not to be deplored, but welcomed as highly beneficial. It is well, nay, essential, for the progress of the race that the houses of some should be homes for all that is highest and best in literature and the arts, and for all the refinements of civilization, rather than that none should be so.”

What we basically have here is the survival of the fittest, Carnegie states, in the business world.  Those who are best at managing money, creating products, organizing and conducting business affairs will be rewarded because they are the best at what they do. 

But, Carnegie feels that the gap between rich and poor has to be addressed in some way, and that’s where the disposal of excess wealth comes in.  First, “it can be left to the families of the decedents; or it can be bequeathed for public purposes; or, finally, it can be administered by its possessors during their lives.” 

The problem with the first way (inherited wealth), Carnegie believes, is that it is rare to find children of wealthy individuals who have NOT been spoiled by a life of leisure or indulgence, and by giving the inheritance to them would be a waste of that hard-earned money.  See the 60 Minutes video below on Howard Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffett and see what he has done w/ his life so far.  The father has made all of his children work for their lives and given them few extra things in their lives (in fact, none of them have graduated from college). 

The issues with the second way (money is left to the public or gov’t) is that the real wishes of the deceased about how the money should be used might be thwarted (though I wonder what happened to wills and stuff like that in Carnegie’s day).  This particular quote is probably the most damning: “In many cases the bequests are so used as to become only monuments of his folly. It is well to remember that it requires the exercise of not less ability than that which acquires it, to use wealth so as to be really beneficial to the community.”  In essence, it’s easier to spend the money than to make it. 

So, Carnegie feels that the best way to address the gap between the rich and the poor is for the wealthy of his and future time periods to follow the third way and use that wealth however they choose, but to do it wisely.  People have joked that if Bill Gates just divided up his fortune amongst everybody, things would be nice in the short term.  But it literally might amount to $500 a person (my own estimate) and then trigger some staggering inflation across the country as many people use some of that money to go and buy stuff unless they put it away for college or retirement.  Carnegie felt that this kind of gift would be a silly idea: “if distributed in small quantities among the people, would have been wasted in the indulgence of appetite, some of it in excess, and it may be doubted whether even the part put to the best use…”

So, the wealthy shouldn’t be extravagant.  They should be modest, and use that money wisely, in effect, putting it aside like a trust fund for when they retire to be spent on things that they feel are important.  And, as Carnegie writes, the wealthy know how to spend the money better than the poor: ” the man of wealth thus becoming the mere trustee and agent for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.


1. Do you agree or disagree with Carnegie’s assessment of how the wealthy should distribute their extra wealth?  Why or why not?

2. In order to address the gaps between the rich and the poor, back then and even today, what should the money have been (and should be) spent on?  Explain why. 

Due Thursday 12/15 by the beginning of class. 

 150 words minimum for each question (so 300 minimum total!). 



 Gospel of Wealth by Andrew Carnegie – http://us.history.wisc.edu/hist102/pdocs/carnegie_wealth.pdf 

http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7391360n Same video below.

April 24

FYI -Pastor Terry Jones in Dearborn

Pastor Terry Jones’ representative states that he is here in Dearborn to protest Sharia law (Islamic law) and in Dearborn b/c the city is a symbol – it has the largest mosque in North America.

Here is a link to his brief press conference outside of a court house when a Dearborn judge told him that he couldn’t protest.

Here is his representative speaking at the court house:

It gets extremely angry at the end, as you could imagine.  For some reason, Pastor Jones feels that the 1st Amendment is under attack here in Michigan.