“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.
“But there is another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”
–John Berger, Ways of Seeing
When I am asked what it is exactly that I teach, I say that I teach people to see. I use archetypes, myth, metaphor, and mostly film, to teach people how to see symbolically and impersonally.
However in the past few weeks I’ve received an eye-opening and heart-opening tutorial on seeing from a point of view other than my own. My instructors have been a treasured African-American friend and one of the great men of American letters, African American novelist and essayist, James Baldwin.
I begin with this: I am a white man raised with all the privileges and education available to any middle-class member of my race and gender who grew up during the Truman-Eisenhower-Kennedy (Jack & Bobby).
I can never begin to inhabit the experiences of my contemporaries—people of color, or, for that matter, women, immigrants, refuges, minorities, the disabled.
Yet, if I can never truly know the experiences of these people, which I know I cannot, I have a moral responsibility and a spiritual longing to see the world, as clearly as I can, as they see it.
All of this is by way of saying that last weekend I went to see Raoul Peck’s documentary about author, James Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro.” Had I been able to see it last year (it only played in Los Angeles for a week to qualify for the Oscars), it would have leapt to the top of my 10 best films list. It is an incomparably powerful work. Descriptions of the film have included adjectives like “scalding,” “searing,” and “thrilling.” I would add “unsparing,” and in the very best way, “disillusioning.”
The film reframes the 1960’s, the most formative decade of my life and one of the most turbulent eras (pre-Trump) this country has seen and demands that it be seen through the eyes of a Black man, and not just any Black man, but the unflinching eyes of James Baldwin, who thought of himself first and foremost as a witness, one as perceptive and eloquent as any this country has known.
Among other things the film offers a very different perspective of Bobby Kennedy, who I idealized during my youth and mythologized as a martyr when I was a young adult—his death in 1968 was often assumed to be a tragedy and loss to the nation equivalent to that of Dr. Martin Luther King who was assassinated earlier that same year.
A different sense of Kennedy emerges in I Am Not Your Negro—that of a condescending dilettante. My words, not Baldwin’s; I await the inevitable responses.
“I remember,” Baldwin says, “for example, when the ex-Attorney General, Mr. Robert Kennedy said it was conceivable that in forty years in America we might have a Negro president. And that sounded like a very emancipated statement, I suppose, to white people. They were not in Harlem when this statement was first heard. They did not hear (and possibly never will hear) the laughter and the bitterness and the scorn with which that statement was greeted. From the point of view of the man in the Harlem barbershop, Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday and now he’s already on his way to the presidency. We’ve been here four hundred years and now he tells us that maybe in forty years, if you’re good, we may let you become president.”
James Baldwin and I share a love of movies and he frequently wrote about them. I wish he were still alive to share his perspective of this year’s Black-themed Oscar nominated films: Hidden Figures, Fences, Moonlight, Loving, which received six nominations in the acting categories, one nomination for directing, two nominations in the category of adapted screenplay, and three nominations, including I Am Not Your Negro in the Best Documentary Category.
“Hidden Figures”, which has recently surpassed “La La Land” as the highest grossing (biggest box-office hit) of this year’s Oscar nominated films, is a terrific film. I thoroughly enjoyed it. After seeing I Am Not Your Negro, I’m not sure that Mr. Baldwin, were he alive to see it, would entirely share my enthusiasm.
Two scenes in “Hidden Figures” caused the majority white audience in the suburban theatre where I saw the film to erupt in cheers. The first was when Kevin Costner took a crowbar to the “Colored Women” restroom sign. The second eruption of cheers occurred when, late in the film, Jim Parsons serves Taraji P. Henson a cup of coffee. My African-American friend informed me that it’s likely that the crowbar scene never happened. Then she said, good-naturedly, “In the coffee scene, the white audience is applauding for itself. It makes them feel good about themselves.” This point-of-view would not have occurred to me and I’m grateful she shared it with me. It was good preparation prior to seeing I Am Not Your Negro.
In the film, Baldwin’s critiques a much praised (and thought to be at the time) ground-breaking film written and directed by white men (the screenwriter won the Oscar): The Defiant Ones (1958) garnered 8 Award Nominations including Best Actor nominations for its co-stars Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis who played escaped convicts handcuffed together (each despises and distrusts the other).
Of The Defiant Ones, Baldwin wrote:
“When Sidney jumps off the train (to save Curtis), the white liberal people downtown were much relieved and joyful. But when black people saw him get off the train, they yelled, ‘Get back on the train you fool.’
“The black man jumps off the train in order to reassure white people, to make them know that they are not hated: that though they have made human errors, they’ve done nothing for which to be hated.”
Savvy African-Americans, like Baldwin and my friend, might suggest that the scenes with Costner and Parsons had the same purpose: “to reassure white people, to make them know that they are not hated: that though they have made human errors, they’ve done nothing for which to be hated.”
White people are not seen only spoken of (with resentment, rage, even hatred), by Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), the embittered, tragic hero of Fences. The film is based on one of the plays in a 10-play cycle by one of our greatest American playwrights, August Wilson. (I’ve seen half of these plays and hope to live long enough to see the rest.) White folk in Wilson’s plays, generally minor characters, are seemingly unconscious of the lives of the Black communities that surround them. Wilson creates a world—a universe really—so rich, textured, compelling and exotic, that I, as a white audience member, sometimes feel like a spy made privy to secrets that are not meant for me to know. If you’ve not yet seen any of Wilson’s plays make the effort—they are thrilling theatre, suspenseful, unpredictable and expert at keeping the audience balanced on the tightrope between comedy and tragedy. At the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Denzel Washington rightly places Wilson in the pantheon of American playwrights of Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee.
I wonder if James Baldwin ever got to see any of August Wilson’s plays. I hope so. Baldwin died in 1987, the year that Fences was first produced on Broadway.
White people are both unseen and unspoken of in Moonlight, a coming of age story unlike any I’ve seen before. Of the eight Oscar nominated films, it would, hands down, get my vote for Best Picture.
In a letter to his editor, Baldwin wrote:
“I am saying that a journey is called that because you cannot know what you will discover on the journey, what you will do with what you find, or what you find will do to you.”
I wonder how James Baldwin would have responded to the journey of the central character.
I saw the film through the eyes of a gay man; (Baldwin was also gay; reportedly both Jack and Bobby Kennedy referred to him disparagingly as “Martin Luther Queen.”) For me, the movie celebrates the gay hero’s triumphant embrace of his of authentic self, something to which I’ve devoted much of my life as a teacher and mentor. I find the film incredibly uplifting; I’ve seen the film twice and the unexpected sweetness of the last scene left me in tears each time.
I asked my friend if she had as yet seen Moonlight. She expressed reservations about seeing it because her sister had found the film depressing. The external world of the film is depressing: one of poverty-stricken dangerous, drug-infested neighborhoods. It’s almost off-handed reference to the incarceration of the hero and his closest friend is discussed by them, in passing, as if it was an expected, almost obligatory, rite of passage. (The disproportionate imprisonment of young men of color by our nation’s for-profit prison industry is the subject of Thirteenth, another of this year’s Oscar nominated documentaries.)
We see through different eyes.
The most surprising impact the Baldwin documentary has had on me is to challenge my perception of Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, “Silence.” No film has moved me more this year. None is more beautiful.
“Silence” takes me back to the idealism of my four high school years and brief seminary experience as a novice in the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits).
In the film, Father Rodrigues, a young Jesuit priest, filled with what some religious call “first fervor,” asks, together with his companion, Father Garrpe, to be allowed to go to Japan in search of their mentor, the missing Jesuit missionary, Father Ferriera.
I remember, as a Roman Catholic high-school junior in 1958, during the Cold War, fantasizing Russian invaders standing us up against the wall of the school and demanding that we renounce our faith in Christ. I, of course, refuse and am riddled with bullets; my last breath is a prayer asking God to forgive those who have executed me. Today, it sounds like one of young Ralphie’s reveries in the holiday favorite, “The Christmas Story.” Nonetheless, at sixteen, I was sincere and so serious. I remember a sentence from “The Catcher in the Rye,” so inspiring at the time, that it is “much easier to die for a cause than to live for one.” Dreams of glory! And like so many of my contemporaries—at least, I think so many of my contemporaries, I embraced this ideal.
I understand Father Rodrigues. I identify with him. When I was his age, or maybe a little bit younger, I wanted to be him. I am 75 years old and he is a painful, yet tender, reminder of that untested dedication and naïve idealism that I confess is sometimes still present in me.
Priest: Introibo ad altare Dei,” “I shall go in to the altar of God.”
Altar boy (they were all boys then): “ad Deum qui lætificat iuventutem meam” “The God who gives joy to my youth.”
(That was the opening prayer and response of the Catholic Mass, in Latin, before Vatican II).
I can almost smell the incense.
Noble sacrifice, purity of intention—those were the days!
Silence is a relentless meditation on Thomas Merton’s thoughtful counsel:
“We too often forget that faith is a matter of questioning and struggle before it becomes one of certitude and peace. You have to doubt and reject everything else in order to believe firmly in Christ, and after you have begun to believe, your faith itself must be tested and purified. Christianity is not merely a set of forgone conclusions. Faith tends to be defeated by the burning presence of God in mystery, and seeks refuge from him, flying to comfortable social forms and safe convictions in which purification is no longer an inner battle but a matter of outward gesture.”
After I saw the movie I bought and read, in a couple of sittings, Shushaku Endo’s eponymous novel upon which the film is based.
No character that I can remember encountering in literature or film has had to bear “being defeated by the presence of God in mystery” as thoroughly as does Father Rodrigues. I’ve reflected on his circumstances for weeks.
And then I woke up in the middle of the night (which happens way too frequently since I began writing a blog) and thought, “How would James Baldwin have viewed the film?”
Speaking of his childhood memories of the movies, Baldwin says:
“ . . . What this does to the subjugated is destroy his sense of reality.
“This means in the case of the American Negro, born in that glittering republic . . . and in the moment you are born, since you don’t know any better, every stick and stone and every face is white, and since you have not yet seen a mirror, you suppose that you are too. It comes as a great shock around the age of five, or six, or seven to discover that Gary Cooper killing off all the Indians when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you.”
Of Christianity, James Baldwin has said:
“Christianity has operated with unmitigated arrogance and cruelty—necessarily since a religion ordinarily imposes on those who have discovered the true faith the spiritual duty of liberating the infidels.”
Maybe, I thought, Baldwin would identify with the point of view of Inoue, the Japanese governor, who sees the missionaries as naïve, arrogant, unwelcome white intruders who are both blind to the beauty of their culture and threatening to the stability of their country.
Or perhaps more likely, Baldwin would identify with the profoundly human, deeply flawed peasant fisherman Kichijiro, a Christian, who the missionaries distrust and disdain. They hear his confessions and forgive his sins out of a self-expressed “priestly duty”—but they fail to see him as a brother.
Bracelets with the letters WWJD (What would Jesus do?) were in vogue a few years ago. In or out of vogue, it’s still a good question. I would like to add a second bracelet: HWJS (How would James see?)
For me, now, both are essential questions.
“We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice.”
–John Berger, Ways of Seeing