This past Saturday I had the pleasure of watching the Oscar-nominated documentary by Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck, I Am Not Your Negro, which was based on a 30 page essay written by James Baldwin, a GOAT candidate of all things Black and Excellent. For the underinitiated, the film may be a bit hard to track…like many of my favorite documentaries, the film is poetic. An essay film, which is only fitting because it follows the flow and thought of one of Baldwin’s own essays. The film is radical. The film is also a call to action for Black people specifically, but also anyone who might find solace, solidarity, or strength in the simple statement of self: I am not your [insert term here].
It is fitting for me at a time in my life where I’ve come from a place of extreme liberalism through Blackness, to a place of even more extremes through Interrelationship. I’ve become more accepting of flaws for the sake of building political, social, and cultural arms. Arms that can hurt and arms that can heal. As important as it is to recognize Anti-Black racism and classism and elitism, there are pressing issues that will require a “nuclear” option. One that resembles more of a natural disaster, where people of all shades and sexualities come together to expand the land that we live on, to grow the pie, and destroy that which subjugates and restricts people’s ability to live. When we do come together, in solidarity, across shades, across sexualities, across genders, we need to re-confirm and re-assert what we are and what we are not.
Peck’s film, well-timed to say the least, Baldwin’s words…his beliefs, his radical and his brilliant mind that does not hate in the way that some radicals do, speak to that need explicitly. The message is simple: If you label me, or define me in a certain way, it is not because that definition or label is who or what I am…it is because that definition, that label is something that YOU NEED for some reason. When you label or define me, you are expressing some sort of need. Logically, when I define or label myself I am also expressing one.
When a problem arises, when I rebel or reject the label or the definition that you’ve affixed to me…when I rebel or reject the baggage and the stress that accompanied that label or that definition, the solution is on you. And it begins with understanding WHY YOU needed to ascribe to me that label/definition to begin with.
Words have power. Words have meaning. When I give myself a label, I do so with the recognition of the power of self-identification: the assertion of self. When others give labels, they may or may not do so with this awareness. Regardless, there is weight to these words. We cannot forget that. When a label, such as the n-word, is not accepted; when we say that Black people are not n-words, and there’s an uproar, we must question why we need to have said label in the first place.
Why did the originators of the term need to have that specific term for those specific people? Why do the current users of that term need it? What is the communicative purpose of it? What is its rhetorical purpose?
These are the questions that we need to ask of ourselves, of the people around us, of the people who represent us, and of our society as a whole. As we come together and shirk terms, re-appropriate terms, re-define, and re-claim terms, we must ask these questions. We must delve within ourselves and within our society to find the answers to them. And it is through those processes that we truly understand the power of abandoning or re-claiming those terms. When self-determination meets societal-understanding, true power, an unalienable power, begins. And that is how the next revolution will truly begin.
Until then, and while I search for those answers, I AM NOT YOUR N****R. I am no one’s anything unless I have given myself to you. We’ll talk about those implications at another point.