The recent documentary I Am Not Your Negro based on an unfinished work by writer James Baldwin is a powerful experience. It reveals the causes of a crisis that continues to plague America, and perhaps one day, and not too far in the future, will afflict India far more deeply than it does now too.

The premise of the documentary is a simple one, of actor Samuel Jackson reading out excerpts from Baldwin’s manuscript Remember this House, while building up a story about the struggle of the Black man in America. That is the expectation with which I started watching this movie. I thought it would be not too different from several movies, documentaries and educational video lectures I use in my classes (the blurb for the documentary on Amazon indicates that it is among other things an attempt to “question Black representation in Hollywood and beyond”). But what director Raoul Peck has brought out is something far beyond compulsory classroom pedagogy.

Baldwin is Not America’s Negro. That is clear. But what he is in this searing experience of truth in sound and image and word and voice is beyond the comprehension of any of our usual categories of media and political analysis. For me, Baldwin is Agni, in equal measure an illuminator and a destroyer, though of what it is not always clear. He is kind, in his manner, his voice, and his eyes, most of all. And yet the horror of what it is he, and the Black Man in America has lived through, have never been stated as insightfully as this film has done.

“I began to suspect that White people did not act as they did because they are White, but for some other reason.”

Baldwin’s critique begins with an intriguing question. Instead of the usual discussion of racism in terms of an innate supremacist tendency in one group, what we find is a profoundly incisive question being asked about the nature of the oppressor; what exactly is it in America’s history that has produced this deep streak of ugly racism? Baldwin talks about economic exploitation and the violence and inequity that accompanies prosperity, but does not leave these as mere causes as many academics and activists tend to do. Instead, he begins to examine why America has invented this violent and demeaning fictional identity for him in the first place. If I’m a man and not a nigger, then why was this (invention of the “nigger”) necessary….

My summary will not do justice to the poetic insight that comes from hearing, watching, and understanding the answer to this for one’s own self. But I will paraphrase briefly, for this is one of the reasons I think this documentary is also vital to help us understand what is going on presently in India, with a seemingly all-out cultural and political war raging against the unfinished Indians of the old colonial Wild East project. It’s easy still for us to see this about America perhaps, but then, in the age of globalization, who can say how far we have become complicit in manufactured delusion too….

“No other country has been so fat and so sleek and so safe and so happy and so irresponsible and so dead.”

The single biggest reason for the invention of a despised “other” perhaps is not only the economic motivation of slave labor (to be followed by the era of nominally liberated workers and mentally enslaved consumers eventually), but the ugly reality that the inventors of such lies seek to escape from. In America, Baldwin hits the nail on the head. It’s the emptiness of a society with, well, a gnawing hole in its heart from the time of its violent conquest and settlement. Think of every bleak American frontier movie you might have seen, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, or the more recent Revenant. And then fast-forward to today’s world of reality shows, talk shows, and other inanities (I Am Not Your Nigger’s most educational moments seem to occur when Baldwin’s words are heard over the background of clips from the wasteland moments of the Jerry Springer show). That emptiness has somehow become the principle of American mass entertainment since, a relentless industry of distraction, amusement, and most of all, normalization for an insane system of planetary and human violence still not settled, and far from it, gone only too global now. 

Now for the Indian face of this global problem.

In the early 1990s, as India opened up not only its economy but also its mind to globalization and all its promises, there were still a few voices who expressed concern about an old phrase in communication research, that of “cultural imperialism”. Somehow, in the (rightful) pro-liberalization zeal of that time, and perhaps given the fact that global media in India adopted a programming policy of widespread localization, somehow, that old concern, and critique, of what it means for one country’s culture (or cultures, as the case may be), to be bulldozed into submission, perversion, or something even more inconceivable, all more or less disappeared. 

The Left, the traditional coiners of words like “imperialism” and opponents of anything American, mysteriously stopped blaming McDonalds and the like and somehow turned their attention to what ought to be seen as the resistance to the likes of McDonalds – the farmers and indigenous cultural activists desperately trying to protect their cows from well-organized and politically-protected industrial-scale cattle thieves. Big Burgers, Big MNCs, Big MacCulture (both literally and symbolically) either vanished from the critical discourse, or, again, mysteriously, got folded into a seemingly secondary position to the real big danger according to their critique, the continuing colonization of South Asia by the invading/slowly migrating Hindu Aryans since 1500 BCE. 

“Saffronization,” in short, became the stand-in for what the same people who coined it would have called “Coca Colonisation,” or even just “Americanisation”.  And “Saffron”, to use the same example, became in this discourse the stand-in for “White”, leading to absurd extremes of color-coding liberties like Professor Wendy Doniger who has probably not felt what an African or an Indian in America has ever felt by the virtue of their skin color and professional privilege, getting compared to Sojourner Truth, an actual African American born into slavery (this was done by the American religion writer Stephen Prothero in USA Today). 

And then "Saffron" became for them a symbol of privilege, to be deconstructed, like “Whiteness”, as opposed to represented, cherished and valued for being a colour of survival, dignity, and most of all, tremendous inclusiveness (I mean, we have a saffron, white and green flag still don’t we?)

Brown John Waynes vs The Indians

I ask us to look at what James Baldwin has seen because despite whatever relative privilege some of us may have had in relation to some others, in India, saffron is the new black. Saffron is not “white”, it is not “America”, it is not power. That power is with those who have the power to lie about the Saffron nation’s  thousand years of mud and blood-stained struggle. Those who have the power, and chutzpah, to have us  believe that somehow saffron is not just white but like really “old (like 1500 CE old) white”. They  are the real powers that be in India today, standing well over you with the power to define you, deceive you, and silence you forever. 

Their privilege is stunning. In global corporations, in high levels of government, in big media, in the one-percent of the academy, they have turned away from being Indian to being wannabe Americans in their own land. They have no idea at all about the savage Indians all around them, the millions, no, the hundreds of millions of little girls and boys taking bath, applying kum kum vibhuti and going to temple with their parents and grandparents. They see only savagery in them. Their tinkling ankle-bracelets are chains, their shikhas are lizards, their naamams are phallic-weapons, and their temples are not ancient sites of precise mystical devotion, cultural invention, and joy, but just sites of oppression and violence. 

Like John Wayne’s “immaturity… taken to be a virtue” in Baldwin’s words, our new elites are out to make us vanish (it was doubly chilling when I heard Baldwin describe John Wayne as a man who would “spend his time admonishing Indians”.) Our John Waynes have brown complexions, sure, and instead of horses they ride their TV and governmental pulpits. But in the end, it’s all the same. 

We are India, still, and yet we are colonized by pretend-Americans right here in India now.

But my criticism is not simply of the people I have elsewhere called the “Brown One-Percenters”. I think the deeper problem that we face is the fact that after nearly two decades of dumbing down by imitating media cultures from distracted America, we have no leading cultural vision any more of who we are. Even Nehru had Non-Alignment and Third World and Ek-Anek going for a while, and Indian cinema did a reasonably good job of keeping our bhakti dreams and hearts alive. But what we have in India now is exactly what Baldwin saw through in American mass culture: a vast machinery of inane distraction from reality in the form of, well “reality shows,” and a growing, snarling bile factory of anti-Hindu moral posturing to boot. 

See it plainly. And tell it you are not what it says you are.

We are not your Negros. 

We are not your Heathens. 

We are not your Kafirs. 

We are not your “Hindu rates of growths”, or “Hindutva hegemons”.

And now we will ask you, all of you who presume to know us better than ourselves as you cheerfully walk us down to the brink of extinction: why have you become like this?  What hole is in your life and your heart to be filled with this need to behave like a violent 19thcentury settler in your land, and over your own people and their children and their animals and most of all, their temples?

We. Are.

And we will be; with you, or despite you.