Another title: I don’t know how Elbow and James Baldwin feel all crammed together here, but the confluence is doing some revelatory things in my brain.
I’ve been listening to Elbow’s latest album release Little Fictions. The self-titled song includes the lines “We protect our little fictions like it’s all we are… we protect our little fictions when we bow to fear.”
I’m not enough of a music snob to review the compositional arrangement, but I am enough of a writing snob to review the lyrical content. And Elbow isn’t protecting our little fictions; this beautiful, head-nodding song is laying them open. He sings, “I’m trying to focus on the issues of the day please. Your paper’s upside down, your radio’s in Chinese.”
I’m trying to focus, trying to see the real behind the smokescreen and the obfuscation. But it’s hard when my news is upside down, when my method of delivery for truth is out of date, or created by bias, or just plain gibberish to me. (I will say, musically, after these lines Elbow does some interesting things with disconcerting chords–or violins? I don’t even know–but it creates the awareness of this cognitive dissonance going on in the world today.)
And secondly, on President’s Day I took a friend to see I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck, based on a projected book from James Baldwin which he never got to finish before his death.
(NSFW: This movie preview contains Baldwin using racial slurs.)
“You don’t know what’s happening on the other side of the wall because you don’t want to know,” Baldwin says, quickly, clipped. “There are days when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it.”
I still haven’t fully processed just how powerful this documentary is. Looking at the assassinations of three men of the Civil Rights Movement–King, Evers, Malcolm X, Baldwin’s television appearances and Samuel L Jackson’s reading of his book proposal are interspersed with clips from pop culture. The effect is jarring, even bizarre. Doris Day is singing in her stage kitchen. Black men are shown lynched. A pajama party on a movie lawn. The Ferguson riots. Two realities. Two universes somehow existing simultaneously.
Baldwin exhorts us, this film exhorts us – look at America, really look at it. Look at yourself and your place in America, and look at the black America that white privilege has whitewashed over (and by whitewash, that often meant and means today brutality and oppression; don’t let my neat trick of literary work fool you).
Two Americas, Baldwin says, and you ignore that which you don’t want to see.
Little fictions. Like that’s all we are. Little fictions. When we bow to fear.