Eddie Glaude Jr. is one of a vital new wave of Black American writers¹.  Though he primarily writes of religion and race in America², the election of Donald Trump in 2016, with its strong strains of white supremacy, was for him, as for many, a sharp unsettling. There had not been, as we might have thought, much progress in tolerance, acceptance, and even fellowship between different races and communities in America.  In fact, there were significant numbers of people, given permission by Trump’s racially coded language and bellicosity, who not only voted, but began to say out loud and publicly act on their racial bigotry.

Recognizing his own despair, Glaude thought of James Baldwin and his loss of hope after the collapse of the Civil Rights movement and later with the election of Ronald Reagan, which represented for him  “the justification of [white America’s] history, their sense of innocence.”  Glaude had read much of Baldwin in earlier years.  He turned to him now with serious intent.  He wanted to know,

“How do we muster the courage to keep on fighting in the face of abject moral failure?”

The more he read of Baldwin’s words, and of the times in which he wrote them, the more he came to see Baldwin as one of our great moral thinkers, and that “… he offers resources to respond to such dark times and to imagine an answer to the moral reckoning that confronts us all.”

Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, is therefore less an introduction to Baldwin than a close, biographically informed reading of his works, and in many cases, reappraisals.  Readers, and critics, including some of Baldwin’s friends,  thought that his best work was in the late 50s and early 60s: Go Tell it On The Mountain (1953), Notes of a Native Son (1955), The Fire Next Time (1962).  After that, they said, his work fell off — too political, not as focused, not as poetic.  One reviewer called No Name in the Street, a 1972 collection of essays, “a deeply troubled but erratically brilliant book-length essay … a disorderly book, both chronologically and emotionally chaotic.”  Another said of Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968), an “oddly depthless novel about a famous black actor.” For another, Giovanni’s Room (1956) was “deeply flawed.”

Glaude, looking through the prism of “the after times,” a phrase he borrowed from Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas, finds much more. The after times, Whitman wrote, was that time after the Civil War “endowed with a vast and more and more appointed body (but) with little or no soul.”  For Glaude, it “refers at once, to the disruption and the splintering of old ways of living and the making of a new community after the fall.”  How did Baldwin do this, what did he see, how did he mange his anger and his love in the years of his “after times?”

In his last novel, Just Above My Head (1979), he wrote, 

“Not everything is lost.  Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated.  If one refuses abdication, one begins again.”

And so Glaude found the title of his book: Begin Again.  All we can do, if not sink into despair and corrosive anger, is to begin again. 

We can Baldwin says,

“… reexamine the fundamental values and commitments that shape our self-understanding, and … look back to those beginnings, not to reaffirm our innocence, but to see where we went wrong and how we might re-imagine or recreate ourselves in the light of who we initially set out to be.”

Ω

The first chapter of Begin Again, “The Lie,” picks up the central contradiction Baldwin often spoke of:

“the belief of many many people that the color of one’s skin determined the relative value of an individual’s life and justified the way American society was organized.”

Glaude denotes this belief The Lie.  It is actually,

“a broad and powerful architecture of false assumptions:” the lies debasing Black people –that they are essentially inferior, less human than white people; the lies about American history –that we are fundamentally good and innocent, that what we have wreaked on people around the world — from the extirpation of the original peoples to the on-going wars in distant lands– can be dismissed as mistakes corrected on the way to a “more perfect union.” 

“This lie, says Glaude, “is the mechanism that allows, and has always allowed,  America to avoid facing the truth about it’s unjust treatment of black people and how it deforms the soul of the country.”

The tragic thing for Baldwin, was that this lie was not only one told by whites about Blacks, but that the “we” who believed this lie included almost all –Black and white alike.  In Chapter Two Baldwin has arrived in Paris, the first of his many years abroad, “where he worked relentlessly to vomit up ‘the profound, almost ineradicable self-hatred.'”  Even the violence of Baldwin’s step-father, David Baldwin, to him and the rest of the family was rooted in the lie.  Though “he was consumed by his hatred for white people … he did believe, tragically, what white America said about him,”

Baldwin’s response to these lies was, again and again:

“We must tell the truth till we can no longer bear it.”
 
In which Glaude joins:
 

“We have to muster the moral strength to re-imagine America. We have to risk everything now, or a choice will be made that will plunge another generation into that unique American darkness caused by the lie.”

For both, the way out of the lie is to resolutely look at our history, personal and national.  As Baldwin wrote in an Esquire essay: 

“History … is not something merely to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past.  On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us. … one enters into battle with that historical creature, Oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating.”

Even in his first novel,  Go Tell It On The Mountain:

‘Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know whence you came.’ 

As Glaude reads Baldwin

“Our task … was to understand the history of how that disfiguring of the soul happened and in doing so, to free oneself and the country from the insidious hold of whiteness in order to become a different kind of creation–a different way of being in the world.”

What is almost always missed by those who celebrate Baldwin, and those who fear him, is that for him “race” was a social construct, not a skin color: it was “those who chose to be white.” “As long as you choose to be white, I have no choice but to be black,” he says in a talk included the the documentary The Price of the Ticket.

Although he was supportive of much the young Black militants of the 60s were saying, there was also an expressed distance, not because of their fiery talk and show of weapons, but because they were returning to “the same damned thing,” the blanket of safety, the wall of protection, of race.

“Don’t get hung up on some mystical black bull-shit That’s how the whole fucking nightmare started.”

In more measured language:

“… the category of race often pulls us out of the places where the hard work of self examination happens.  It can easily become an illusion of safety, because so many questions are settled before hand by the assumptions and stereotypes that come with our understanding of race.” 

“I would like us to do something unprecedented…to create ourselves without finding it necessary to create an enemy.”

Ω

In the last pages Glaude moves to more of his own experience, including a trip to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice created by the Equal Justice Center under Bryan Stevenson.  He points to one of the institutional supports of racism in the courts and prisons, especially the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 which set up the militarization of local police forces, and sharply increased the rates of incarceration – by some 500% since the election of Ronald Reagan.  Of the two million Americans now incarcerated, 67% are people of color.

Baldwin knew this before many:

“ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know, not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it.  It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”

Begin Again, Glaude says,

“is shorthand for something that Baldwin commended to the country in the latter part of his career: that we reexamine the fundamental values and commitments that shape our self-understanding, and that we look back to those beginnings not to reaffirm our greatness or to double down on myths that secure our innocence, but to see where we went wrong and how we might re imagine or recreate ourselves in light of who we initially set out to be.” 

When we make Trump exceptional, or hurl blame on others,  we let ourselves off the hook.

Ω

More on Baldwin here, here and here.

 

¹ The contemporary Black writers who have spoken to me are,

Bryan Stevenson.  (1959 –  )
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2014) A remarkable work about the criminal justice system and death row.
Isabel Wilkerson,  (1961 – )
  • Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010) Black migration from the south to the north.  
  • Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020)
Michelle Alexander (1967 – )
  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010)
Eddie Glaude, Jr.  (1968 _  )
  • Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for our Own (2020)
Ta-Nehisi Coates (1975 – )
  • Between the World and Me (2015)
Ibram Kendi.  (1982 – )
  • Stamped From the Beginning (2016)
  • How to Become an Antiracist  (2019)

Aside from my personal takes, here is a list of important Black scholars.

 

² Glaude’s work includes Democracy in Black : How Race Still Enslaves the American SoulExodus!: Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America, In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America and  African American Religion: A Very Short Introduction among others.

Films
 
I Heard It Through the Grapevine (1982) a movie documentary directed by Dick Fontaine andPat Hartley.  No listing in July 2021
 
The Price of the Ticket, (1989) originally a 4 part series, now avail on Kanopy; Directed by Karen Thorsen
 
“From Another Place” a short film by Sedat Pakwy’s (no listing in IMDB)
 
I Am Not Your Negro (2016) Raoul Peck; Available many streaming sources