Listening to Shanida Scotland’s documentary Nobody Knows My Name: Notes on James Baldwin, I both envied and pitied her. I envied that she had had to sit down and listen to so much archive footage of James Baldwin. I pitied her because she was forced to choose so little from such a great body of work. Baldwin had the ability to speak succinctly and beautifully, even when discussing brutality and hate. This documentary spoke of a revival in interest in James Baldwin, now he is back in public consciousness we should make sure he never fades from it again.
It began with writer and poet Musa Okwonga explaining that what draws him to writers is the emotional force of their work, “they pick up the pen and they are unafraid of what comes out. They stay true to the ink at all times”. To him, the role of the artist is to disturb the peace, “to stay true to the ink”, to demonstrate fierce love and bravery.
Thirty years since his death, Baldwin has not lost that ability to disturb the peace and inspire. When asked about the name Baldwin, he explained the name came from the bill of sale when his grandparents were sold. Baldwin was the name of the man who owned his family, it is a name directly connected to the shameful history of slavery, but it is barely historical. His father was the son of a slave.
As a white, middle-class male, I don’t like to feel culpable. I want to pretend it was all a long time ago, but the archive Baldwin interviews and contemporary commentators remind you it is not so easy to disengage. Ignoring it all is a conscious choice.
Thirty years since his death, Baldwin has not lost that ability to disturb the peace and inspire
Novelist Mitchell S Jackson stated that “whiteness is a moral choice. You are saying something about yourself when you choose this side that is built on oppression.” As he makes clear, this is not the same as declaring your nationality, this is another form of declaring identity and supposed values.
Baldwin talked of bad education, to him a major failing of the US system, because education required “a certain daring… we have to teach young people to think, and in order to teach young people to think you have to teach them to think about everything.” Looking at some American footballers’ reaction to draft-avoiding Donald Trump’s demands of blind allegiance and anthem, in their “taking the knee” we are reminded that thoughtless bowing to a flag is a route to shutting down areas of your curiosity, it places some questions out of bounds.
Looking at the rise of mob and dogma, Okwonga reminds us to listen “to more artists like Baldwin, listen to those questioning voices.”
At the Tate Modern’s current Soul of a Nation exhibition, there are statements by artists declaring the pointlessness of “art for art’s sake”, it has to strive to be something more than that, something that stirs, “create art that lets the world know that you exist”.
Too much of our media thrives on snide, sniping contrarians, this excellent documentary was a call for more eloquent, passionate, questioning and educating voices to be heard and to be encouraged.