James Baldwin, Hubert Humphrey and the American Dream

Last Updated by Katy Beem on
James Baldwin at March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963.
© Dan Budnik

I Am Not Your Negro

On the evening of June 1, 1964, the same month civil rights groups launched the intensive black voter registration drive known as Freedom Summer, New York City television station WNEW broadcast a special program titled My Childhood: Hubert Humphrey's South Dakota & James Baldwin's Harlem. The one-hour, black-and-white documentary was comprised of two separate segments, each depicting through film, photos and music, Humphrey’s youth in white, rural Doland, SD, and Baldwin’s formative years in urban, African-American Harlem, respectively. Humphrey, a pharmacist’s son, and Baldwin, whose stepfather was a minister, narrate the footage by recollecting intense boyhood memories, but neither appear in the film. A New York Times (NYT) review published the day of its premiere read:

 “My Childhood” is recommended viewing for this evening… Senator Humphrey's re­membrance of childhood de­lights is a joy. His apprecia­tion of small‐town life and his description of what home meant to him is conveyed in language that is touching and sincere… The pictorial transition to Harlem and Mr. Baldwin's despairing narrative offer a shattering comparison. The ugliness and loneliness of Harlem are presented on the screen as Mr. Baldwin speaks of his father in terms as harsh as those he uses in his printed works. The residue of hatred that he feels he inherited, he says, led him to despise white and black people alike—to despise the world.

Fifty-three years since that broadcast during Freedom Summer, WNEW has become NYC’s flagship FOX network station. The United States twice elected and bid farewell to its first African American president. Black Lives Matter is entering its fifth year and the Supreme Court is currently deliberating the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering with Gill v. Whitford.

james-baldwin-iam-not-your-negro-3.jpgJames BaldwinGetty Images This month, SDPB airs the 2016 Academy Award-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, I Am Not Your Negro is based on Baldwin’s unfinished book addressing the lives and bloody deaths of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcom X – all black leaders assassinated in the 1960s. NYT’s A. O. Scott wrote, “Whatever you think about the past and future of what used to be called ‘race relations’ — white supremacy and the resistance to it, in plainer English — this movie will make you think again, and may even change your mind.”

HHHMLK_000.jpgHubert Humphrey & Martin Luther King Jr.UofM

The film My Childhood is difficult to track down. No copies are available at libraries in South Dakota. Argus-Leader archives indicate the film was shown April 20, 1976, as part of the Sioux Falls Public Library film series. Part 2 of the film, James Baldwin’s Harlem, is available on YouTube, but cursory searches brought no hits for Hubert Humphrey’s South Dakota. Watching all three films and noting how much and how little has changed would make for compelling, and recommended, viewing for any evening.

My Childhood: James Baldwin on YouTubeMy Childhood: James Baldwin on Youtube

Independent Lens: I Am Not Your Negro

SDPB2: Wednesday, Jan. 17, 7:30pm (6:30 MT) & Saturday, Jan. 20, 11am (10 MT)

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