“They needed us to pick the cotton, and now they don’t need us anymore. And now they don’t need us they’re going to kill us all off, just like they did the Indians.” James Baldwin from “I Am Not Your Negro” (2016).
It is that time of year again, where we celebrate Black history month. And I think we should celebrate it. We should celebrate the lives and deaths of those who struggled for our collective freedom. We should celebrate the achievements of those who made things happen under the storm of white supremacy. Indeed, in this current moment of political activism and discourse, under the presidential regime of Forty-Five, the Movement for Black Lives, the fight for undocumented rights and humanity, and the struggle to end the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline, celebrating our past is just as important as fighting for our future. I’m proud to exist right now, actually, because people continue to resist settler colonialism and white supremacy.
In this celebration, we should also seek to recover lost histories, including the Black women, queer and trans folks who have also contributed to our collective liberation. We should celebrate the intersectional activism between people and organizations, across races and genders, and reflect on the power of working collectively to end oppression.
In addition to that, we should engage in critical reflection, of the past, the current state of affairs, and imagine where we might go in the future. We might not always have answers but we certainly need to continue, in the words of Robin D.G. Kelley, to dream of freedoms, and struggle and study. But we must always do this through decolonial love, the love that Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg intellectual and artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson describes in Islands of Decolonial Love.
We must think about what it means to celebrate Black history month in the context of indigenous struggles for sovereignty. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortize writes in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, “the history of settler colonialism--the founding of a state based on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft.” Black oppression and indigenous oppressions have been intimately linked, and are at the core of this country’s founding, and ongoing oppression. Thus, this requires that we decolonize Black history month, and our perspective on it. And it is through this idea of decolonial love, that I want to briefly discuss the recent documentary I Am Not Your Negro, and the idea of indigenous genocide, and how James Baldwin used it as a critique of whiteness and as a prop for constructing an idea of Black liberation.
On a nice, warm Sunday afternoon, I went to watch I Am Not Your Negro. I felt all of the emotions. Anger. Sadness. Joyful. Enraged. My perspective weaved in and out of idealism and despair. All of the emotions, I suppose, that James Baldwin would want a viewer of his work to feel. Everyone should watch this documentary at least twice. In fact, I’m still trying to unpack it. This essay is not a review of the documentary, as I’m sure many will write one. Instead, it is a critique from someone who is Black and indigenous (Saginaw Anishinaabe), and comes from someone who works at the intersections of Black Studies and Indigenous Studies.
The documentary is a discussion of race in the United States. Based on thirty-pages of a book Baldwin was going to write on the meaning of the deaths of his three personal friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. Directed by Raoul Peck, it blends historical interviews featuring Baldwin and other notable figures, as well as recent video of the rebellion in Ferguson. The images make it powerful and disturbing, reminding one of the long history and all-encompassing nature of antiblackness in this country. We must recognize antiblackness (and anti-Indianness, too!) as a core part of this country’s material and psychological development, and Baldwin reminds us of that. As Christina Sharpe argues in In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (2016), “at stake is not recognizing antiblackness as total climate.” However, people resist, and “at stake, too, is not recognizing an insistent Black visualsonic resistance to that imposition of non/being.” Through the words of Baldwin, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the documentary is powerful.
But I couldn’t help but notice how Baldwin’s rhetoric and Peck’s use of images at various points in the documentary relied on the history of indigenous genocide. For instance, Baldwin, at a debate with the conservative personality William Buckley, held at Cambridge University in 1965, stated:
“In the case of the American Negro, born in that glittering republic, and the moment you are born, since you don’t know any better, every stick and stone, and every face is white. And since you have not yet seen a mirror, you suppose that you are too. It comes as a great shock, around the age of five, or six, or seven, to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, the Indians were you. It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you.”
Here Baldwin uses the history of indigenous genocide to describe how race was constructed, and how Black Americans could rejoice over what would ultimately be their own demise: genocide. The issue here is that Baldwin, like other activists during the time, described indigenous genocide as an afterthought, ignoring Native resistance. Baldwin used the history of settler colonialism as a prophetic tool, a prop to Black Americans to say this: if you don’t resist white supremacy and racism, if you don’t fight oppression, you will be treated just like the “Indians,” and killed off.
Peck blended Baldwin’s words with images of Native genocide, including old westerns where white men were shooting Native people. And, most egregiously, a scene from Soldier Blue (1970), directed by Ralph Nelson, which was a rendition of the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864. In this scene, four soldiers, holding a Native woman at gunpoint, ripped off her clothing, leaving her naked for the audiences gaze. In the following scene, Peck shows pictures of the Wounded Knee Massacre, which occurred in December 1890. Dead bodies were covered in snow. And while going over this scene, Samuel L. Jackson, in the words of Baldwin, states “it reveals the weakness, even the panic, of the adversary.” This sequence of scenes is both disturbing and illuminating. It reveals how those seeking to critique racism understands indigenous genocide, but fails to capture the resistance to such attempts and genocide. Seeing Black death is cruel indeed, but seeing indigenous death with no illustration of the people who fought against settler encroachment, is bone-chilling. It perpetuates the settler state’s major goal of cementing the fact of indigenous disappearance. We did not all disappear, and we remain, fighting, still.
These scenes create a tension not only between blackness and indigeneity, both in how the settler state constructs the parallel but different treatment of Black and Indigenous Peoples historically and today, but also how Blacks construct an idea of liberation. This is not to say that all Black radicals uncritically use indigenous genocide as a tool for Black liberation; indeed, many seek solidarity and acknowledge that they are on indigenous land. However, at least historically, Black radicals and intellectuals have used the history of indigenous genocide as a prophetic tool, and it is this discursive practice that needs to be challenged and critiqued. This is not only important as an intellectual exercise, but also long term, as a course of action for those committed to making sure that Black Lives actually matter, on indigenous land, or what some of us indigenous folks refer to as Turtle Island.
As we come to the end of Black History Month, I hope we continue to engage in productive dialogue and intersectional activism. To all of my Black peers who struggle for social justice, and I say this with love, as a Black and indigenous person: please do not use indigenous genocide to construct your idea of liberation. If we actually want to end white supremacy, and I believe many of you do, make sure to know that indigenous people are resisting right beside you. And though our struggles may overlap and, at times, diverge, as history has shown us, and #NoDAPL and the movement for Black Lives has demonstrated, moments of solidarity are always just around the corner. During these times and under this presidential regime, we will need one another.
Kyle Mays (Black/Saginaw Chippewa) is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is working on two projects, one is an Indigenous history of modern Detroit and the other focuses on Indigenous Hip Hop. You can follow him on twitter: @mays_kyle.