This essay presents the idea of James Baldwin as a freedom writer, the organizing idea of
my biography in progress. As a freedom writer, Baldwin was a revolutionary intellectual,
an essayist and novelist committed unfailingly to the realization of racial justice,
interracial political equality, and economic democracy. While the book is still in
process, this short essay narrates autobiographically how I came to meet and know
Baldwin’s work, explains in critical fashion my work in relation to existing biographies,
and reflects interpretively my thoughts-in- progress on this fascinating and captivating
figure of immense historical and social consequence.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016) takes its direction from the notes for a book
entitled “Remember this House” that James Baldwin left unfinished, a book about his three
friends—Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.— their murders, and their
intertwining legacies. The film examines the prophetic shadow Baldwin’s work casts on
twentieth- and twenty-first-century American politics and culture. Peck compiles archival
material from Baldwin’s interviews on The Dick Cavett Show, his 1965 Cambridge lecture,
and a series of banal images indexing the American dream. Juxtaposed against this
mythology is footage of Dorothy Counts walking to school, the assassination of black
leaders and activists, KKK rallies, and the different formations of the contemporary
carceral state. Our conversation examines Peck’s role as a filmmaker and his relationship
with the Baldwin estate. Additionally, we discussed a series of aesthetic choices he
fought to include in the film’s final cut, directing Samuel L. Jackson as the voice for
the film, the similarities and shifts he wanted to document in American culture since the
1960s, and some of the criticism he has received for not emphasizing more Baldwin’s
This book can be described as an 'oblique memoir'. The central underlying and repeated themes of the book are exile and displacement; lives (and deaths) during the Third Reich; mother-daughter and sibling relationships; the generational transmission of trauma and experience; transatlantic reflections; and the struggle for creative expression. Stories mobilised, and people encountered, in the course of the narrative include: the internment of aliens in Britain during the Second World War; cultural life in Rochester, New York, in the 1920s; the social and personal meanings of colour(s). It also includes the industrialist and philanthropist, Henry Simon of Manchester, including his relationship with the Norwegian explorer, Fridtjof Nansen; the liberal British campaigner and MP of the 1940s, Eleanor Rathbone; reflections on the lives and images of spinsters. The text is supplemented and interrupted throughout by images (photographs, paintings, facsimile documents), some of which serve to illustrate the story, others engaging indirectly with the written word. The book also explains how forced exile persists through generations through a family history. It showcases the differences between English and American cultures. The book focuses on the incidence of cancers caused by exposure to radioactivity in England, and the impact it had on Anglo-American relations.
life for even near-high-flyers; but during their time at
Rochester they did not feel, as some at Hull did, that they were in a
backwater and only waiting for a call … Almost all of them believed …
that we had to be friendly one to another, and the more so because
academic life in the States is regarded as more of an odd backwater
even than it is in England.
He tells stories about his encounters with colleagues, neighbours and
students, always reflecting in interesting ways on the differences
between English and Americancultures. This is something he is
its most vivacious and adventurous period in the 1920s and 1930s, the Muralist
Movement variously captured revolutionary optimism, humanism and suffering. Just as José Martí and José Enrique Rodó demanded a place for America in
schemes of world history, the muralists implored the world of the arts to find a
place for an original Mexican culture. Along with other modernist artists they
made significant contributions to the cross-currents of Latin Americanculture.
Cross-currents also washed through José Mariátegui’s Marxism. His outlook was
See Alison Landsberg, ‘Prosthetic Memory:
The Logic and Politics of Memory in Modern AmericanCulture’
(PhD dissertation, University of Chicago, 1996), p. 13.
See Alison Landsberg, ‘America, the
Holocaust, and the Mass Culture of Memory: Toward a Radical Politics
of Empathy’, New German
Rowe and Rick Berg (eds), The Vietnam War and AmericanCulture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p.
Stephen Vlastos, ‘America’s
“Enemy”: The Absent Presence in Revisionist Vietnam War
History’, in John Carlos Rowe and Rick Berg (eds), The
Sarah Orne Jewett, The Tory Lover, and Walter Scott, Waverley
not unlikely that, as a friend and early supporter of Jewett, Howells had discussed such matters with her.
See Robin Gilmour, ‘Scott and the Victorian Novel: The Case of Wuthering
Heights’, in J.H. Alexander and David Hewitt (eds), Scott and His Inﬂuence,
Aberdeen, Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 1983, pp. 363–71, for
such inﬂuences on the English provincial novel.
T.J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation
of AmericanCulture, 1880–1920, New York, Pantheon Books, 1981, 105. For
a fuller discussion see pp. 101–6.
exportation that is characteristic of global
culture today. The newness they embraced was, I think, a cultural form
that was an amalgam of a set of collisions which took place within a new
republic that had broken with Europe but still maintained close relations
with it. In 1848, when the Fox sisters and their ‘Rochester rappings’
launched spiritualism on the world, this republic was still reliant on a
system of slavery that allowed it to prosper economically; but alongside
this had experienced encounters with indigenous peoples whose eﬀect on
Americanculture was more
or cultural orientation. Unlike
Foucault, who equates ‘popular memory’ with the force of
resistance, Sturken provides a useful model for the negotiation of
memory in popular film, especially as it is produced within the context
of Americanculture. If, as Erica Carter and Ken Hirschkop suggest, 5 memory depends less on a
conscious decision to record than an inability to forget, the negotiation of memory