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Posted under: Opinion Race & Identity

How James Baldwin Illustrates The Problems With Respectability Politics

I Am Not Your Negro Either!

“I may or may not be bitter, but if I were, I’d have good reasons for it.” – James Baldwin

I Am Not Your Negro brought up a lot of feelings that I’ve been contemplating for a while. Feelings that initially left me guilt-ridden when I experienced them because “loving my enemies” has been ingrained in me since childhood. Feelings that motivated me to remove myself from the westernized Christian church because I no longer wanted to be associated with the doctrine that was (and is) used to oppress my people. I often think about how, in the words of Stokely Carmichael, “the [European] missionaries came for our goods, not for our good” when they arrived in West Africa hundreds of years ago.

The organized church hasn’t done a whole lot for me for some time now. In my experience, black churches often take their cues from white churches, and as Baldwin mentioned in the film, “ I cannot afford to trust white churches. You want me to make an act of faith on some idealism that you’re sure exists in America that I have never seen.” 

At this point, someone proclaiming their Christianity leads me to raise an eyebrow more than anything else. It’s sad, really. The majority of my Facebook friends who support Trump and his racist, xenophobic and sexist policies are former classmates from when I attended Christian school. They’re also the ones that post “All Lives Matter” when our black brothers and sisters are slain in the streets and their lifeless bodies are paraded through every major media outlet. They use biblical scriptures to justify their views and refer to our country’s “founding fathers” (quite literally for black folks in the cases of Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Jackson) as men of God. They then proceed to post photos of white Jesus. I’m sick of white Jesus. And I’m even more nauseated when the photo is posted by a person of color.

These feelings have been boiling up inside of me.

“The tragedy is the people that say they care about it, do not care. They care about their safety and their profits.” – James Baldwin

I am wary of the liberal white politicians who preach equality for all, but use their foundations to rob the very people they are supposed to help. I am wary of white feminists who use their platforms to protest only when policies impact them and their circle of white female friends. I am wary of those who “free their nipples” and craft witty signs to walk miles for the Women’s March (free of police harassment) but are silent and immobile when it comes to matters that affect women who don’t look like them.

I am wary of 55 percent of white women.

“If a white man stands up and says, ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ the whole world applauds. If a black man says the same thing … he is treated as a criminal.” – James Baldwin

And called thugs. Thug is the new word for nigger, if you didn’t already know. Thug is used to describe any black person who fights against their oppressor. A thug isn’t a “respectable negro” who accepts the cards he is dealt. Instead, she or he is considered a trouble maker for wanting equality. Disingenuous white folks love quoting him in times of social unrest, but Martin Luther King, Jr. would’ve been called a thug if he were alive today. How quickly they forget that he was considered a criminal then. For the longest time I considered myself to be more in line with Malcolm X because of his militant political stance. I overlooked King’s actions, considering him to be too passive in his marches for freedom. Little did I know what a profound affect those marches and boycotts had on the law. He did not compromise his beliefs for anyone and in the end, and as Baldwin said, “Malcolm had picked up Martin’s burden and articulated it. Martin saw Malcolm’s vision on the mountain top.” They were striving for the same goals.

“The story of the negro in America is the story of America.” – James Baldwin

Yet, fifty years later, we are still fighting. This is not a post-racial America. Van Jones calls our country’s current events a “whitelash against a changing country.” White folks are terrified. They were terrified then. They have been terrified. As my mother says, America is the land of the free, home of the slave – whether it be physically, mentally or economically.

Let’s get back to my feelings. I don’t have much faith in our government. While he was undoubtedly a prolific writer, it’s unsettling that Baldwin’s words still ring true today. It’s unsettling that there are far too many parallels between race relations then and race relations now. In hindsight, I think the issue truly does go back to our “founding fathers.” Black people were not forcibly brought into this country to flourish and become valued citizens. From the very beginning, we were considered less than. The system isn’t broken. It’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. In the future, I’ll probably discuss the ways we can elevate our positions in society. 

But for now, I’m bitter. And I have good reasons for it. 

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Maria Ivy is a Los Angeles based writer, blogger, and script consultant for TV and Film projects. Business Minded. Industry Related. For the Culture.