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O My America: African Americans as Non-Americans

Lawrence Bush
March 12, 2017

by Lawrence Bush

I saw two powerful films over the past week that drove home the same point with very different vocabulary: Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro and Jordan Peele’s horror comedy, Get Out.

Peck’s film uses as its script some thirty pages of writing by James Baldwin (from an unfinished book, Remember This House, about Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X), and is edited with a tight fury that fills the screen with disturbing and surprisingly associated images -- white racists in all of their lynch-mob ugliness will be followed by scenes of Doris Day in The Pajama Game -- to bring us deeper and deeper into the film’s fundamental questions: Why do white Americans always make an “other” of black Americans, shutting them out of the “club” of American legitimacy? And how does doing so shape our culture, our politics, our everything? As Baldwin says towards the end of the film: “What white people have to do is try to find out in their hearts why it was necessary for them to have a nigger in the first place. Because I am not a nigger. I’m a man. If I’m not the nigger here, and if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that -- whether or not it is able to ask that question.”

If you once upon a time used the word “Negro” instead of “nigger” -- as the film’s title does -- don’t worry, I Am Not Your Negro won’t let you off the hook, either. Even when spoken on camera by the proudly scornful Malcolm X or by the earnest and elegant Dr. King, “Negro” is a word that always made me cringe — for its proximity to “nigger,” for how it makes race paramount, and for how it separates, classifies, demeans, dignifies, all at once, the people to whom it is supposedly referring.

JORDAN PEELE’S Get Out turns the fundamental matter of “othering” black people upside down by portraying a white liberal family (and their network of friends) as ghouls who perform the ultimate ingesting of black culture by literally stealing black bodies and souls for the sake of their own longevity and vibrancy. Peele has no need to splice in scenes from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? the way Peck’s documentary does, for the subtext is right there, tangible and breathing: that even white liberals who love the blues, love jazz, consider Martin Luther King to be their prophet, and are happy when Henry Louis Gates comes on the TV screen are still usually perceiving black people not as quintessentially American but as some kind of special case or redemptive category. This way of “othering” black Americans is different from a lynch mob’s, of course, but it still qualifies as horror.

Both films are amazingly adept — Peck’s a fast-moving, chock-full documentary that doesn’t let your mind go limp for a second, and Peele’s a perfectly pitched film that both fulfills and goes way beyond its genre, giving us blood and shock and fear (not too much adrenalin-pumping, don’t worry) and then leaving us even more profoundly horrified by the reality behind its metaphors.

Ahh, racism. So many knots to untangle before it stops strangling us.

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.