Update Aug. 8
Abigail McGrath is a resident of Oak Bluffs.
I saw the James Baldwin film, “I Am Not Your Negro,” a biopic, directed by Raoul Peck,
at theMartha’s Vineyard Film Festival in Chilmark recently, where intelligent films which provoke thought are often shown.
I was a child of the ’60s and ’70s, and grew up thinking that racism was almost over. As an actress, I had had several encounters with Mr. Baldwin, through his brother, the actor, David, and was thoroughly flattered when one day James Baldwin actually called me by my name: “Abigail here will eternally apologize for the white people of this country because she has had a privileged life and knows nothing of the pain that the working class people of her race must endure.” I know that I should have been insulted, but I was just so darn flattered that he knew my name that I kept coming back for more. I only hung out with him for about two weeks, until Mr. Baldwin had me fired and I lost my shot at playing Juanita in the London revival of “Blues for Mr. Charlie.” But as I recall, we argued every single moment of that fortnight.
I was one of the “onliest.” I was the onliest black girl in my class, the onliest black girl in my bunk at camp, the onliest black girl on the chess team, the onliest black girl in the theater department at college. (I played Mary Warren in “The Crucible.” My white roommate played Tituba.)
Nobody was ever mean to my face, nobody spit on me, nobody told me I couldn’t sit there or couldn’t sip from the fountain. I hadn’t been taught how to hate.
I don’t know why Mr. Baldwin put up with me, maybe because I had spent a lot of time in Paris and knew how to do the European etiquette thing, like shake hands with each person at the table, always look a person in the eye, and smoke Gauloises cigarettes. I had been a dancer at the Crazy Horse Saloon and at the Folies Bergère, but I saw no reason to tell anybody that. I just let them think I was studying Carolingian poetry and watched them get intimidated.
One of my arguments with Mr. Baldwin was about the English. He claimed that the English did not love their children because they beat them so much. I happened to have an English au pair girl at the time who was babysitting my son, and saw no choice but to defend her and her people. The remarkable thing about Mr. Baldwin was that he had the ability to make his audience spellbound. He was like my aunt, Dorothy West, another writer with incredible personal charisma. She was a tiny little thing who could hold a whole room full of people in her hand. So since I was trained on her scolding me, I was able to stand up to Mr. Baldwin.
When Mr. Baldwin spoke, Rip Torn, who was also in the cast, put down his drink; people put down their forks stuffed with chicken and waffles; cigarettes were snuffed out in the ashtray. All of Wells’ restaurant in Harlem stopped talking, all so that they could hear him put me down as an apologist for the English. I really hated that. I hated being pushed into that position. I did what I could to protect my English nanny friend. His argument was faulty but quite convincing. When I got home that night, my son whispered to me that my English nanny friend had given her daughter a really nasty spanking. (OK, she had beaten her.) I was furious that Mr. Baldwin was so spot-on.
But was he? One cannot prejudge a whole people just because of one nanny.
Each of us prejudges. When you see a policeman do you think: beer and baseball, or wine and opera? We often make mistakes when we prejudge. If you’re betting money, it is safer to go with “beer and baseball.” It’s kinda OK to prejudge, until it comes to making laws based on it. It is wrong to prejudge when it comes to employment, housing, or getting a taxi.
Mr. Baldwin could be extremely touching when it came to his baby brother, David. Mr. Baldwin would be totally protective of him. He would encourage him and tell him all sorts of things which would inspire him to be as good and as successful a person as he could be. Often, when I heard him talking to David, I would want him to be my father. Few people ever saw that side of him.
In any case, in the film, there is a section in which he talks about having a black president (“If they let us have one”), and it jet-propelled us all up to date. That was when this film showed us all how little things had changed.
During the post-viewing discussion, the question of how much things had changed yet stayed the same inevitably came up. The famous speech by Frederick Douglass which was written in 1852 — ”What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? — came to my mind.
What seems to be the blatant racism of this current administration makes it easy to say that this historical speech is as relevant today as it was at that time. The truth is, this speech was just as relevant during the Bush years, the Clinton years, the Carter years, and even the F.D.R. years. Douglass was right, Mr. Baldwin was right, and nobody has done anything about it. The fact that we perceive the race factor to be getting better and better is because we “have been down so long, it looks like up to us.” We are pleased that we had a black president — why shouldn’t we have one? That man was smarter, better suited, did a better job than his competitors — he deserved to be president, yet we see it as an accomplishment in race relations, not a personal achievement.
Racism has so many levels that it can be difficult to recognize. Like any disease, early detection is one solution. Turning a blind eye only metastasizes it.
No other group of people share the history of the American black from Africa.
Brought over against their will, separated from family and country, beaten into submission and serving only one principle, cheap labor, made them and their descendants unique.
Indentured servants were given a raw deal also, but they could always run away and “blend in.”
Other ethnic groups have been reviled, but those groups always had the ability to change their names, their noses, and cross over.
The film has been nominated for an Academy Award; will it bring about change? Not if the remarks of those in the audience are to be used as an indicator.
The first step in every 12-step program is to admit that you have “the disease.” Not one person admitted to the advantage of white privilege. Not one person seemed to see themselves as “the enemy.” True, they were a passive enemy, but they got the job that a black person did not, they got the mortgage when a black person could not, they got off with a warning when a black person got the ticket, they were always told they could succeed and shown examples of it, they were never showed how they would fail, or omitted from history. Blacks were not told that they were bound to poverty by design. They were led to assume that their poverty was their fault. They dare not hope.
Let’s not get confused here. I love America; so did Mr. Baldwin: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
I love America despite her flaws and how she has treated me. Like Mr. Baldwin and Douglass, I love America, knowing full well that I could get killed for a traffic infraction or driving too slowly.
Mr. Baldwin was right; I was an apologist for the whites, I had been so brainwashed that I did not see it. Douglass saw it in 1852, 100 years later Mr. Baldwin saw it in 1952; Abby didn’t see it until a few nights ago — in Chilmark.
Editor’s note: Column updated to reflect proper venue where film was shown.