What’s Your Role?

Posted March 8, 2017

People who sing the praises of “I Am Not Your Negro,” tend to mention being bowled over by James Baldwin’s prolific insights or being struck by the similarity between the world he was commenting on and the one we seem to be living in now. In all of this, I agree. However, there is one, seemingly innocuous moment in the film that stands out for me among the rest.

It wasn’t because of some lofty insight or some horrific realization about the America of today. It was simply a question Baldwin  asked himself.

During an interview with Kenneth Clark, Baldwin discusses his coming to terms with what life is actually like as an “American negro,” and he says, “There are days, and this is one of them, where you wonder what your role is in this country.”

The words struck me with an immediate sense of ownership. Like when you lose track of an idea and it suddenly comes back to you, out of the blue, hours later. Without even having been searching for it you think, “This. This is what I was trying to say.”

For me, the quote resonated less as a question of racial identity, but more as an idea of my “role.”

James Baldwin was back from Paris, returning home to jump into the Civil Rights Movement, and was looking around him and trying to make sense of the world and how he fit into it. In the month and a half since the election, I’ve also found myself, in many moments, looking at the world around me, trying to make sense of it.

I read stories about Jewish cemeteries being desecrated, staggering increases in hate crimes, even within my liberal bubble, and people turning their back on the research and progress of science.

It all baffles me more than anything.

At first, I assumed that I would be vocally outspoken about the injustices I saw . I went to rallies; I shared information online; I called my representatives. But, after a while, I  felt like a voice shouting into the wind.

More and more of my friends were texting me in moments of confusion or outrage. My Facebook wall was littered with political messages and requests urging people to follow a specific list actions. While I felt the same anger and concern I had weeks earlier,  there was now a voice in my head asking if this was the best way.

What is the best way for me to contribute? How can I make a difference? What is my role?

It’s humbling to actually face a moment in time that requires action and be forced to stop thinking, “If I were alive then, I would have…” I’ve spent my entire life reading essays and poems by tremendous writers, speaking out against intolerable cruelty and injustice. I’ve seen incredibly deft filmmakers shed light on problems with insightful emotion and clarity. I’ve heard speeches from the most eloquent and powerful speakers, but where do I fit in?

What is my role?

I’ve been turning this over in my brain for the past couple of weeks. I’m upset. Of that much I’m clear. I don’t like the way freedoms seem to be increasingly encroached upon and people are more publicly calling out differences as a way of suggesting superiority, but what do I do with the reaction I’m having? How can I make sure I do something that matters?

I’ve been looking at ways in which I usually express myself or avenues in which my life is currently set up to make a difference, and I can’t find anything that I could carry out with confidence.

I don’t consider myself a strong enough writer to put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) and come up with somebody that would move the needle. I don’t have the capacity or personal experience that somebody like James Baldwin had to speak from. I could write until my fingers were chaffed down to the bone, and I’m not sure I could find the right combination of words that would make anybody feel any differently about the way they see the world. I couldn’t raise the right questions or spawn the necessary actions.

I could try to put my emotions and ideas into film, but the truth is, I’m not sure I know where to start. I’ve yet to find my true voice as a filmmaker, and most of the stuff I make has been described as “cute, kinda funny, love stuff.” How can I translate that into something of  necessary substance? I’m blown away by the creativity of a film like Get Out, but I’m not sure how I can find that in my own experience. Nor do I think I have the courage to take a camera and go to the places in the country where the real stories need to be told. There’s still a voice in my head telling me that there’s somebody better to tackle that.

I could try to make a difference through education, but I’d be lying if I said my students were the ones with whom I could make the biggest impact. I love the kids I teach, but many of them are way smarter than I was when I was their age, and they, generally speaking, come from culturally diverse families that impress upon them many of the same feelings and ideas that I would be trying to express. Would I be telling them anything different, and, more importantly, could I do it in a way that actually makes a 16-year-old care about something outside of their own experiences?

I’m not sure any of that is what my role is supposed to be. Then again, I’m not sure if I would know how to find that role if it actually presented itself.

Until then, I just know that I’ll keep searching.