“One of us should have been there with her.”

By Tess Adair


I am Not Your Negro is a documentary that takes footage from the past few years, intercut with footage of the Civil Rights Era and earlier, all overlaid with a voiceover lifted from an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin called Remember This House. Per Baldwin’s own words, the purpose of the manuscript was to examine the current state and course of this country through the deaths of three of its citizens: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Not one of these men made it to 40.


In the narration, Baldwin examines his relationship to each of these men, to the Civil Rights Movement itself and all its (sometimes warring) factions, and to the country he was born into that he chose to leave behind for the bulk of his life. His thoughts are fraught with the wide array of emotions and reactions, a lifetime’s worth of grappling with this contradiction of a nation and its grip on its citizens.


Like any other myopic self-centered white person, I was struck over and over by how closely his feelings resembled my own. Case in point: his recounting of the story of Dorothy Counts, the first black girl to attend an all-white school. He recalls how she walked with a straight back among hostile white classmates, endured their taunts and jeers, held her head high with defiance on her face as the world tried to push her down with hate. He recalls her glorious, fierce pride--and his own rage at her mistreatment, his fear for her safety--and his deep shame at seeing her walk alone.


“One of us should have been there with her,” he says.


His shame is my shame. But his shame is unaccompanied by the known and undeniable privilege of owning a white body. My shame is compounded by this. To deny my shame would be to miss the point entirely.


This is one of those films where the edits are telling: you can jump between the world of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the world of today and you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference. King left his mark on the world, undoubtedly, and the world was changed by his presence. The world is changed. And yet nothing is changed. That toxic mix of structural racism and interpersonal racial bias hasn’t gone away: it’s only figured out how to hide itself a little better.


Perhaps the most disturbing moment of the film is a sudden cut to an image of lynched men, their bodies hung so unnaturally for so long that they have become deformed. There is a lesson in this that we must not forget: when an abnormal pressure is applied to biological beings for long enough, the beings have no choice but to contort themselves to fit the space they are given. The cost of this grotesque shape-change is high, ranging from the annihilation of the self to death.


When faced with these truths, there are two questions that every person, regardless of age or race or gender or class, must ask themselves:


What kind of nation, what kind of world do I want this world to be?


What am I willing to do to realize that world?


Let me go ahead and confess my own sins now: I have not been to a Black Lives Matter rally. I have told myself I would, but I have also repeated to myself a million excuses for why I haven’t. There’s a truth to all of them, but not nearly enough truth. This is my shame.


“One of us should have been there with her,” he says.


If one day I raise black children, will I be able to tell them that I stood for them? Or must I tell them that I am just another one of America’s great failures? That I had a body, but I chose not to use it? A voice, but I never raised it? A duty, but I never rose to it?


What will you tell them?


I know I’m not the only person who feels this shame. That’s why I wrote this. I want to reach out to everyone else like me and say this: as long as you are alive, it’s not too late.


Every day you have is a day you can use to change your own story, your own shame. There are no singular, easy solutions--going to one rally on a weekend won’t change the world into the one you want it to be. But lucky for you, and lucky for me, every day that we wake up is a new day, a new chance to try again.


I have the next rally in my city locked into my schedule, and I invite you to do the same. This is but one small step, and it will not stop there. We have a duty to rise. I will not let myself believe that this duty ends after one day of action. That, too, would be to miss the point.


I’m reminded of my favorite work of nihilistic art, The Watchmen, and my favorite exchange towards the very end:


“I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.”

“‘In the end’? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.”


Nothing ever ends, and there are no grand metaphysical forces that will shape your reality, that will do the hard work for you. The only meaning life has is the meaning we give it.


So we fight on. And on and on. Our duty never ends. But after all, what is a life without purpose? You take your rest where you can, yes, but you do it so that you may find the strength to rise again the next day. We should not wallow in our shame, but instead use it as fuel. It’s never too late to begin.


Of course, it’s James Baldwin himself who provides the best words to end on:


“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”


So face it.