2/25/11

Take This Hammer

Take This Hammer follows James Baldwin's tour of San Francisco in the spring of 1963 and features his thoughts on race in America. It includes conversations he had with residents in the Bayview-Hunters Point and Fillmore Districts. Thanks to the San Francisco BayView for featuring the film in a post earlier in the week.



Much of the anger expressed by locals in Take This Hammer shouldn't come as a surprise: in 1963 SF's Redevelopment Agency announced its plan to raze 60 square blocks and displace 13,000 residents, a large number of them African-American, not to mention the national headlines of racially-charged bombings and riots in the South. Keep in mind, the MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had yet to occur.

The film looks low budget by today's standards, but I enjoyed seeing a bright, sensitive, passionate social critic like Baldwin speaking about issues while visiting the community he's discussing.

Baldwin's jujitsu-like handling of the term "nigger" in the film's final scene contains a practical kind of wisdom that is still valuable today. This transcript begins at the film's 40:30-mark.
One of the great American illusions, one of the great American necessities, is to believe that I, the poor benighted Black man whom they saved from the elephant-ridden jungles of Africa and to whom they brought the Bible is still grateful for that.

And people say, in many, many ways, not only in the South, all over this country, in effect you should be grateful. Even slavery--they released you from that. You’re no longer dodging tsetse flies in some backward country.

While I know this, and anyone who has ever tried to live knows this, that what you say about somebody else, anybody else, reveals you. What I think of you as a being is dictated by my own necessities, my own psychology, my own fears and desires. I’m not describing you when I talk about you; I’m describing me.

Now here in this country we have something called a ‘nigger’, who doesn’t in such terms, I beg you to remark, exist in any other country in the world. We have invented the ‘nigger’. I didn’t invent him. White people invented him.

I’ve always known, I had to know by the time I was 17-years-old, that what you were describing was not me, and what you were afraid of was not me. It had to be something else. You had invented it, so it had to be something you were afraid of and you invested me with.

And if that’s so, no matter what you’ve done to me, I can say to you this, and I mean it, I know you can’t do any more and I’ve got nothing to lose. And I know, and I’ve always known, and really always, that’s part of the agony, I’ve always known that I’m not a ‘nigger.’

But if I am not the ‘nigger', and if it’s true that your invention reveals you, then who is the ‘nigger’?

I am not the victim here.

I know one thing from another. I was born, I’m gonna suffer, and I’m gonna to die. So the only way you can get through life is to know the worst things about it. I know that... I was personally more important than anything else, anything else. I learned this because I had to learn it. But you still think, I gather, that the ‘nigger’ is necessary. But he’s unnecessary to me, so he must be necessary to you. I give you your problem back. You’re the ‘nigger’, baby, it isn’t me.
Background on Take This Hammer: here.

Photos of protests in the Fillmore District against Southern segregation: here.

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