The author reviews Raoul Peck’s 2016 film, I Am Not Your Negro, finding it a remarkable achievement as a documentary that breaks with cinematic conventions and emphasizes the importance of listening as much as looking. The director has singled out Baldwin as the writer whose work spoke most directly to his own identity and experience during his peripatetic childhood in Haiti and Africa, and in I Am Not Your Negro, Peck aims to ensure that Baldwin’s words will have a similar effect on audiences. However, even as it succeeds in reanimating Baldwin’s voice for a new political era, I Am Not Your Negro inadvertently exposes the difficulty of fully capturing or honoring the writer’s complex legacy. As scholars have long noted, interest in Baldwin’s life and work tends to divide along racial and sexual lines, and Peck’s documentary is no exception. The filmmaker privileges Baldwin’s blackness over his queerness by overlooking the parts of The Devil Finds Work and No Name in the Street in which the writer’s queerness figures prominently.
James Baldwin’s writing, his persona, as well as his public speeches, interviews, and discussions are undergoing a renewed reception in the arts, in queer and critical race studies, and in queer of color movements. Directed by Raoul Peck, the film I Am Not Your Negro decisively contributed to the rekindled circulation of Baldwin across the Atlantic. Since 2017, screenings and commentaries on the highly acclaimed film have prompted discussions about the persistent yet variously racialized temporospatial formations of Europe and the U.S. Stemming from a roundtable that followed a screening in Zurich in February 2018, this collective essay wanders between the audio-visual and textual matter of the film and Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village,” which was also adapted into a film-essay directed by Pierre Koralnik, staging Baldwin in the Swiss village of Leukerbad. Privileging Black feminist, postcolonial, and queer of color perspectives, we identify three sites of Baldwin’s transatlantic reverberations: situated knowledge, controlling images, and everyday sexual racism. In conclusion, we reflect on the implications of racialized, sexualized politics for today’s Black feminist, queer, and trans of color movements located in continental Europe—especially in Switzerland and France.
For several years now, James Baldwin’s life, portrait, and work have enjoyed a central place in the public eye. Although social and audiovisual media have made significant contributions to Baldwin’s return to the cultural and political limelight, the circulation of his published writings remains a vital part of the author’s ubiquity. Moreover, since Baldwin’s omnipresence in bookstores transcends an American or even Anglophone context, this international and multilingual circulation contributes to Baldwin’s world literary standing, as befits the self-described “transatlantic commuter.” This article moves beyond the customary approach to Baldwin’s published success by tracing presently circulating European translations of his work. The article examines the historical developments in Baldwin’s European circulation-through-translation from the time of his death (1987) up until the present, including brief discussions of the French, Italian, and West German translations from the 1960s onward. Of special interest are the pioneering and dominant roles that French and Italian publishers have played since the late 1990s, and the acceleration in circulation that took place across the continent in the wake of the films I Am Not Your Negro and If Beale Street Could Talk. The article concludes with a few remarks on the translation strategies of several key publishers in France, Italy, Germany, and Romania.
This review article charts the general direction of scholarship in James Baldwin studies between the years 2016 and 2017, reflecting on important scholarly events and publications of the period and identifying notable trends in criticism. Surveying the field as a whole, the most notable features are the “political turn” that seeks to connect Baldwin’s social insights from the past to the present, and the ongoing access to and interest in the Baldwin archive. In addition to these larger trends, there is continued interest in situating Baldwin in national, regional, and geographical contexts as well as interest with how he grapples with and illuminates issues of gender and sexuality.
Rather than write a classic biography of James Baldwin in the last cycle of his life—from his arrival in 1970 as a black stranger in the all-white medieval village of Saint-Paul, until his death there in 1987—I sought to discover the author through the eyes of people who knew him in this period. With this optic, I sought a wide variety of people who were in some way part of his life there: friends, lovers, barmen, writers, artists, taxi drivers, his doctors and others who retained memories of their encounters with Baldwin on all levels. Besides the many locals, contact was made with a number of Baldwin’s further afield cultural figures including Maya Angelou, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Angela Davis, Bill Wyman, and others. There were more than seventy interviews in person in places as distant as Paris, New York or Istanbul and by telephone spread over four years during the preparatory research and writing of the manuscript. Many of the recollections centred on “at home with Jimmy” or dining at his “Welcome Table.”
“Interventions” was the organizing term for the presentations of three Baldwin scholars at the Modern Language Association Convention in Chicago in January of 2019. Baldwin’s travels and activities in spaces not traditionally associated with him, including the U.S. South and West, represent interventions of a quite literal type, while his aesthetic and critical encounters with these and other cultures, including twenty-first-century contexts of racial, and racist, affect—as in the case of Raoul Peck’s 2016 film I Am Not Your Negro—provide opportunities to reconsider his work as it contributes to new thinking about race, space, property, citizenship, and aesthetics.
The acceleration of interest in Baldwin’s work and impact since 2010 shows no signs of diminishing. This resurgence has much to do with Baldwin—the richness and passionate intensity of his vision—and also something to do with the dedicated scholars who have pursued a variety of publication platforms to generate further interest in his work. The reach of Baldwin studies has grown outside the academy as well: Black Lives Matter demonstrations routinely feature quotations from Baldwin; Twitter includes a “Son of Baldwin” site; and Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, has received considerable critical and popular interest. The years 2010–13 were a key period in moving past the tired old formula—that praised his early career and denigrated the works he wrote after 1963—into the new formula—positing Baldwin as a misunderstood visionary, a wide-reaching artist, and a social critic whose value we are only now beginning to appreciate. I would highlight four additional prominent trends that emerged between 2010 and 2013: a consideration of Baldwin in the contexts of film, drama, and music; understandings of Baldwin globally; Baldwin’s criticism of American institutions; and analyses of Baldwin’s work in conversation with other authors.
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 sexuality.