“I Am Not Your Negro begins with [James Baldwin‘s] return to the U.S. in 1957 after living in France for almost a decade — a return prompted by seeing a photograph of 15-year-old Dorothy Counts and the violent white mob that surrounded her as she entered and desegregated Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. After seeing that picture, Baldwin explained, ‘I could simply no longer sit around Paris discussing the Algerian and the black American problem. Everybody was paying their dues, and it was time I went home and paid mine.’ ”
— From “The Imperfect Power of I Am Not Your Negro” by Dagmawi Woubshet in The Atlantic (Feb. 8)
A dramatic turning point, for sure — but chronologically impossible.
“Contradictory, irrational, weird…these are the appropriate adjectives to assign to the phenomenon of racism we too often, and to our detriment, regard as something rational, to be dealt with linearly, bluntly. When it comes to race in America, the story is… always more complex. The most peculiar, most fantastic story I heard during the 2008 election prepared me for what would take place in America over the next few years — not a sudden awakening from a history of racism, but a mere recess from it; not a lunacy cured, but a madman’s revelatory wink: he knows this is madness, but he is committed to it, nevertheless….
“A friend was campaigning for then-candidate Obama in North Carolina. They had organized a town-hall meeting, where people could come to get their questions answered. The situation had grown heated and yet tired — the conversation was going around in circles. And finally one white man, in utter exasperation, rose and threw on his cap. ‘F–k it,’ he hollered, ‘I’m voting for the n—–!’
“Here is the cry of a confused and yet not-at-all-confused man — in short, here is the cry of a lunatic. And he is our lunatic. He is our beguiling, bewitching, deeply American lunatic….”
— From Uzoamaka Maduka‘s introduction to James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” in the now-defunct American Reader (December 2012)
The story is often told (by me, among others) that it was a news photo of Dorothy Counts desegregating Harding High School that motivated James Baldwin to return to the U.S. from Paris.
In fact, that’s what Baldwin himself wrote. Impossible, says Douglas Field in “A Historical Guide to James Baldwin” (2009):
“After living in France for nine years, Baldwin decided to return to the United States in 1957…. By the time Baldwin wrote ‘No Name in the Street’ (1972), he would trace this decision to a moment in the fall of 1956 when he was covering the first International Conference of Black Writers and Artists, at the Sorbonne, in Paris for Encounter. On the way to lunch with Richard Wright and other black writers from the conference, Baldwin writes that they were faced with newspaper images of ‘fifteen-year-old Dorothy Counts being reviled and spat upon by the mob as she was making her way to school in Charlotte, North Carolina.’
“In fact, this recollection is historically inaccurate, because Dorothy Counts would not be reviled and spat upon for another year, not long before Baldwin arrived in Charlotte to cover the desegregation struggle….”
Although the Brian Williams affair has cast a spotlight on the unreliability of memory, conflation is obviously not a new phenomenon.