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'Fresh Air' Listens Back To James Baldwin And Documentary Filmmaker Raoul Peck

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. The Oscar-nominated documentary "I Am Not Your Negro" about James Baldwin and his views on racial politics in America was released in 2016. Four years later, in this period of international mass demonstrations demanding police reforms and protesting the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, the movie is being newly showcased and celebrated. Here's a clip from the film. It includes language that may be disturbing to some listeners.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO")

JAMES BALDWIN: If any white man in the world says give me liberty or give me death, the entire white world applauds. When a black man says exactly the same thing word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one. And everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won't be any more like him.

BIANCULLI: That's the voice of James Baldwin from an archival clip in "I Am Not Your Negro." The PBS series Independent Lens rebroadcast the documentary Wednesday night and PBS is streaming "I Am Not Your Negro" through June 21 on its website, pbs.org. It's also available on Amazon Prime. James Baldwin was one of the most influential African-American writers to emerge during the civil rights era and to address racial issues head on. Baldwin chose to spend much of his adult life outside the United States. He moved to France in 1948 at the age of 24, but in 1957, the civil rights movement drew him back to America. He traveled through the South and wrote about it. He got to know Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X and was devastated by their assassinations. He'd started a book about them, but it remained unfinished when he died.

The documentary draws on his notes for the book, as well as other writings. All those writings are read in the film by the actor Samuel Jackson. As part of today's show, we'll listen back to an interview Terry Gross conducted in 2017 with Raoul Peck, the director of "I Am Not Your Negro." But first, we'll listen to an excerpt of the interview she recorded with James Baldwin himself in 1986. He died one year later at the age of 63. They began by talking about his father, who was a preacher in a storefront church.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BALDWIN: Daddy was a old-fashioned fire and brimstone hellfire preacher, you know, very direct, very chilling sometimes. His orders were not only coming from him but from the almighty. So in a way to contest him was to be contesting, you know, the lord, to be fighting the lord. Of course, my father was not slow to point this out.

(LAUGHTER)

BALDWIN: There was something very frightening about it.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

You became a preacher when you were 14.

BALDWIN: That's right.

GROSS: Why did you do that?

BALDWIN: Well, it was almost inevitable, you know, being raised that way. And after all, I'm not doubting anything my father said, not doubting the Gospel, not doubting the church, you know. And at the time of puberty when everybody goes through a storm, you know, the storm of self-discovery, the storm of self-contempt, the storm of the terror who is this self, which is suddenly evolving, you know, suddenly you're distinguishing yourself from other selves.

And all of these things - and the sexual question, of course, you know. All of these things sort of coalesce into some kind of hurricane in a way, you know. And in that hurricane, I do - what do I do? I reached out for the only thing I could - which I knew to cling to, and that was the Holy Ghost.

GROSS: So by being a preacher, you didn't have to - you were able to, like, put on the back shelf for a while sexuality and entering adulthood and those kinds of things?

BALDWIN: Well, it didn't work, actually. You know, I mean, I was in the pulpit for three years. And all those - you know, all of the elements which had drawn me in the pulpit, you know, were still there, were still active, were still - I was not less menaced. And in those three years in the pulpit - it's very difficult to describe them, I probably shouldn't try - there was a kind of torment in it, but I learned an awful lot. And my faith - perhaps I lost my faith, or the faith I'd had, but I learned something else. I learned something about myself, I think, and I learned something through dealing with those congregations. After all, I was a boy preacher. And the people I was - congregations I addressed were grown-ups.

A boy preacher has a very special aura in the black community. And that aura implies a certain responsibility, you know, and the responsibility above all to tell the truth. So as I began to be more and more tormented by my crumbling faith, it began to be clearer and clearer to me that I had no right to stay in the pulpit 'cause - and I didn't know enough. I didn't - the suffering of those people, which was real, was still beyond the ken of a boy 14, 15, 16. You could respond to it, but I had not yet entered that inferno. Then you said about being a nigger, which I was only just beginning to discover, and it frightened me. So for those reasons and complex reasons, I left. I left home. I left the church.

GROSS: What did you do to try to get your foot in the door somewhere as a writer?

BALDWIN: Well, I wrote all the time, you know. I worked all day, and I wrote all night. And I learned a lot. I began to be being published when I was 22. I had a fellowship when I was 21. And something else was happening too, though I didn't quite see it. I was just - I was defined as a young negro writer. And that meant that certain things were expected of a young negro writer.

And what was expected, I was not - I knew I was not about to deliver. What was expected was to - I'm putting it very brutally - but what was expected was to accept the role of victim and to write from that point of view. And from my point of view, it seemed to me that to take such a stance would simply be to corroborate all of the principles which had you enslaved in the first place.

GROSS: "Go Tell It On The Mountain" was a fairly autobiographical novel. And it really won you a lot of attention and prestige in America. Your book of essays, "The Fire Next Time," which was published in 1963, was I think perceived by many whites as an attack against whites. Like, he's threatening us with the fire next time. Did that happen? Did some white people see it that way? And did it change your reputation to becoming more of a controversial writer?

BALDWIN: Yeah, but that had happened - that had begun to happen already without my quite noticing it 'cause long before "The Fire Next Time" - which was not an attack on white people. They flatter themselves.

(LAUGHTER)

BALDWIN: Long before that when I first got South - first went South and tried to begin to - 'cause I went as a reporter, and I tried to get the story published, you know. The first few times I - first few magazines when I came back did not want to publish the reports because they accused me of fomenting violence. Now, I was describing violence, which was not - violence which I was in no way responsible. And I thought that people should know what is going on and why it's going on. And in the battle, you know, to do this, I became notorious.

In any case, the battle I was fighting it seemed to me was not simply about black people but also - my position as it concerns white America was it's your country, too. It's your responsibility, too, you know. And "The Fire Next Time" is probably the combination of all those years, you know. It was when I was being called the angry young man on the white side of town and being called an Uncle Tom on the black side of town.

GROSS: You've been very outspoken about civil rights issues and about black issues in America, but you've been much less outspoken about homosexual issues.

BALDWIN: Well...

GROSS: And...

BALDWIN: Go ahead.

GROSS: And I'm just thinking that in a way, homosexuals have been marginalized in both the white and black parts of American culture.

BALDWIN: Well, there's no point in mixing the two questions. It only leads to terrible confusion. And in America in any case, the homosexual question is tied up with the whole American idea of masculinity - the whole infantile idea according to me - and absolutely untrue. To be a man is much more various than the American myth has it. It seems to me in the life I myself have lived and the life that I've observed that love is a very big - love is like the lightning of a life. Love is where you find it, you know? And your maturity, I think, is signaled by the depth or the extent to which you can accept the dangers and the power and the beauty of love.

GROSS: Some of your writing has really been, I think, very important to gay people and people in the gay movement in America. And I wonder if the gay liberation movement had any effect on you, if it was important for you to have, you know, a movement...

BALDWIN: No.

GROSS: ...About that.

BALDWIN: No, no, no. I left the church when I was 17 and have not joined anything since. You see, before I left this country, I had been afflicted with so many labels that I'd become invisible to myself, you know. I had to go away someplace and get rid of all these labels to find out not what I was but who. You see what I mean? And the gay liberation movement is ideally an attempt precisely to find out not what one is but who one is and also to have no need to defend oneself, you know? So it was a very simple matter for me, in any case, to say to myself, I'm going this way, you know, and only death will stop me, you know? And I'm going to live my life, the only life I have, in the sight of God.

BIANCULLI: James Baldwin speaking to Terry Gross in 1986. He died one year later at the age of 63. After a break, we'll hear from Raoul Peck, the director of that 2016 documentary about Baldwin called "I Am Not Your Negro." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXEI AIGUI'S "FRIENSHIP DISAPPEARED")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Our next guest, Raoul Peck, is the director of "I Am Not Your Negro," the 2016 film about James Baldwin that was nominated for an Oscar for best documentary. It's being streamed through June 21 on the PBS website, pbs.org. Peck was born in Haiti, but after that country fell under the rule of a dictator when he was 8, his family fled to the Congo. Peck also has lived in Germany, France and the United States. He briefly served as the minister of culture for Haiti.

Let's hear another clip from the Baldwin documentary. It begins with archival footage of James Baldwin speaking at a public forum in 1963, and it ends with a passage from Baldwin's work read by Samuel L. Jackson, who reads from Baldwin's writings throughout the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO")

BALDWIN: Most of the white Americans I have ever encountered really, you know, had a negro friend or a negro maid or somebody in high school. But they never, you know, or rarely after school was over or whatever, you know, came to my kitchen. You know, we were segregated from the schoolhouse door. Therefore, he doesn't know - he really does not know - what it was like for me to leave my house, you know, leave the school and go back to Harlem. He doesn't know how negroes live.

And it comes as a great surprise to the Kennedy brothers and to everybody else in the country. I'm certain again, you know, that like - again, like most white Americans I have, you know, encountered, they have no - you know, I'm sure they have nothing whatever against negroes. That is not - that's really not the question. You know, the question is really a kind of apathy and ignorance, which is a price we pay for segregation. That's what segregation means. It - you don't know what's happening on the other side of the wall because you don't want to know.

SAMUEL L JACKSON: (Reading) I was in some way, in those years, without entirely realizing it, the great black hope of the great white father. I was not a racist - or so I thought.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Raoul Peck, welcome to FRESH AIR. What did James Baldwin mean to you when you were first starting to read serious literature and to become aware of the civil rights movement in America?

RAOUL PECK: Well, first of all, I learned about him very early on between end of high school and beginning of university - of college. And the first book I read was "The Fire Next Time." And at that time, you know, in the '60s, there were not so many examples. There were so many authors I could read and find myself at home. You know, everything I would read, whether it's French literature or American literature, I was always suspect of each page because you would, you know, turning the page and bump on to a racist remark and then realize that that book was not about you and that you were not included in the picture.

So James Baldwin was one of the first authors ever where I felt not only at home, but he was speaking directly to me. And he was translating feelings and thoughts that I never had in a very structured way. And he gave me very early on the instruments I needed to understand and to even deconstruct the world around me.

GROSS: Can you give me an example of something he wrote that stayed with you that you read when you were young?

PECK: "The Fire Next Time" was not only for me the story of an elder who's trying to teach a younger nephew, you know, the facts of life, what I probably got from that is the notion of different perspective. That, you know, it was legitimate to see the world totally differently than the dominant way, you know, which is the Western dominant way of seeing the rest of the world. You know, whether it's Europe or North America, you know, there is always this incredible sense of, you know, we are the world, we are the center of the world. And we see the rest of the world from that center. And Baldwin helped me understand that this was a political standpoint and that we were legitimate to question that and to see ourself as well the center of the world or at least as important or as valuable, you know, to have a different perspective on that.

So it's really - that's why I always said what I learned from Baldwin is this way of questioning something that might seem solid - nothing is solid - and this sort of agility - of mental agility and intellectual agility to question everything, I think Baldwin helped me to have that very early on in my life.

GROSS: There's a fascinating part of the film in which you have archival footage of a 15-year-old African American girl who's integrating a white school. She's the only black student, as far as I can tell. And she's being sneered at and insulted and surrounded...

PECK: Dorothy Counts, yes.

GROSS: Yes - and mocked. And she's just, like, standing up to it. She's just, like, looking straight ahead. She has this look of determination on her face. And you quote Baldwin as saying, you know, that he felt someone should be there with her. And he was living in France at the time. And this had a pivotal role in his life. Would you describe the story of this girl and her impact on James Baldwin?

PECK: Well, as always, Baldwin is always somebody who can, you know, change the perspective. You know, we all saw those pictures. You know, I was too young, of course. But even later on when, you know, we used to see those images of those, you know, desegregation moment where young black children were going into white schools and sometimes with their parents. But the parents would leave them the whole day in that school. And nobody really think about that. You know, what do you do as a young child, you know, of 15, 16, 17, and you are alone in basically enemy territory as a child?

But Baldwin not only felt that, but he tried to tell that part of the story that we, frankly, never guessed, you know. And so when he saw that in - that's what I used in the film - and watching that photo, his reaction that some of us should have been there with her. And it tells the whole tragic - and you see the face of this young girl, you know, basically alone against a hundred people and young kids, adults, you know, women and men, you know, yelling at her, basically, and, you know, mocking her. And that's such a tragic scene. And Baldwin caught it.

GROSS: My guest is Raoul Peck. He directed the film "I Am Not Your Negro" about James Baldwin. Here's the part of the film we were talking about where Samuel Jackson is reading from Baldwin's writing about the photo of Dorothy Counts.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO")

JACKSON: (Reading) That's when I saw the photograph. On every newspaper kiosk on that wide, tree-shaped boulevard in Paris were photographs of 15-year-old Dorothy Counts being reviled and spat upon by the mob as she was making her way to school in Charlotte, N.C. There was unutterable pride, tension and anguish in that girl's face as she approached the halls of learning with history jeering at her back. It made me furious. It filled me with both hatred and pity, and it made me ashamed. Some one of us should have been there with her.

But it was on that bright afternoon that I knew I was leaving France. I could simply no longer sit around Paris discussing the Algerian and the black American problem. Everybody else was paying their dues. And it was time I went home and paid mine.

BIANCULLI: A clip from the documentary "I Am Not Your Negro" about James Baldwin and his writings about the ongoing struggle for civil rights. Terry Gross talked with the director, Raoul Peck, in 2017. PBS is streaming the documentary through June 21 and it's also available on Amazon Prime. After a break, contributor Dave Davies interviews journalist Howard Bryant, who wrote a book about the tradition of political and social advocacy among African American athletes. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REVOLUTION")

NINA SIMONE: (Singing) And now we got a revolution 'cause I see the face of things to come. Yeah, your Constitution... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.