Eddie Glaude Jr. has always kept James Baldwin’s words close to him. In fact, he’s even considered him a “walking partner” for a long time.
And with his latest New York Times bestseller, “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own,” the distinguished Princeton professor of African American studies and MSNBC contributor finally delves into Baldwin’s life and work — bringing the impactful author to the forefront of his own career for the very first time.
As Glaude says, this was finally his chance to “write with” Baldwin, not about him.
With the work, Glaude interviewed several remarkable activists and academics — such as Angela Davis — while examining Baldwin’s progression into becoming a more overtly political writer during the Civil Rights Movement. He uses Baldwin’s words as a scope for the modern day, looking at what he calls “the lie”: “the broad and powerful architecture of false assumptions by which white lives are valued more than others.”
“What we’re seeing now is a reassertion of the lie,” Glaude said. “People are asserting a certain story, this illusion, this myth of America as the city on the hill. Some folks are exhausted. They’re desiring to return to what was normal. But people are still fighting, people are still struggling. We have a chance, but our history doesn’t bode well, it doesn’t suggest we’re going to do well. But as Jimmy would say, ‘Human beings are at once miracles and disasters.’ So even if we create disasters, if we show up, we have a chance for a miracle.”
The Daily Gazette caught up with Glaude before his virtual discussion with the Capital Region Antiracism Training Initiative on Oct. 6 at 7 p.m, and residents can sign up at tinyurl.com/capregionallyship. Our conversation, lightly edited for length, follows below.
Q: You previously spoke about how, even before writing this book, Baldwin has been somebody you keep in your back pocket and this was your opportunity to bring him to the forefront. How important has Baldwin’s work been in your own writing career?
A: He’s been a close walking partner for a long time. Helping me think about American democracy, helping me think about Black culture, helping me think about me. In some ways, as I was building the intellectual foundation that would be my career, he was there from the beginning, in the background guiding my hand and my eyes and my pen. And finally, I was brave enough to bring him forward.
Q: And you spoke in other discussions about not wanting to take his words out of context but with this book, really using them in a way that helps us understand what we still see today. What inspired you to really chronicalize his life in this way and look into some of these ideas?
A: In some ways, it was my own despair. My own worry and disillusionment about many of those young activists in Ferguson, many of whom were dying as they were trying to figure out what to do post-2014. And the country had elected Donald Trump and the like. I knew that Jimmy [Baldwin] had gone through his own depression, his own despair, his own moment of acknowledging the country’s betrayal, and tried to figure out how to pick up the pieces and how to bear witness in the face of that betrayal. So I wanted to go through the ruin and the rubble to describe some of his work and figure out what I could find there. So instead of writing about him, I wanted to write with him.
Q: For this book, you spoke to some pretty remarkable people — Angela Davis included. Can you describe what goes into telling the story of one of our history’s greatest wordsmiths and what you found to be the most challenging aspect?
A: The most challenging thing was keeping Baldwin from running me over. He’s this literary giant, his sentences dance on the page, his brilliance is bottomless. So what would it mean for me to stand with him in conversation and not mute my voice, not try to imitate, not allow him to run me over like a beer can? That was the most difficult part — trying to keep my voice, trying to stay true to my sentences. The second challenge was trying to find the form. The book is at once biography, history, literary criticism, memoir, trying to figure out how to have some narrative coherence as I move back and forth.
Q: Can you describe the feeling of the release of this book coinciding with nationwide protests, most recently what we’re seeing with our neighbors here in Rochester?
A: Initially, the book was supposed to come out in April but COVID-19 hit and then we pushed it back to August. And then George Floyd happened. And what was so fascinating is that as I was talking on MSNBC, and responding to what happened with George Floyd and I kept drawing on the book, kept finding words in Baldwin … so we decided to move it back up to June 30. The fact that I wrote it a year and a half ago was astonishing really. It proves something Jimmy says: “America is always changing but America never changes.”
Q: Something I found interesting was that you spoke about Baldwin’s distinction between “being white” and those who feel they “happen to be white.” Those who are engaged vs. those who are in avoidance of what’s happening in the world. Can you elaborate a bit on the importance of this distinction at this moment in time?
A: Any view that begins with the assumption that because you’re white, you ought to be valued more than others, there’s nothing salvageable about that. Nothing … And so part of making that distinction involves forcing a choice. Because we choose to do these things. In some ways, we’re socialized into it. But at some point, we are confronted with the choice. Are you going to be this way or that way? When I made that distinction, I’m actually trying to force people to make a choice with which side of the ledger do you want to be on? And in this moment, that choice couldn’t be starker. It couldn’t be more momentous.
Q: And this is an idea that goes along with the Capital Region Antiracism Training Initiative and its Racial Equity Habit-Building Challenge. How do you as a scholar and bestselling author touching on many of these topics, view habit-building challenges like these?
A: These efforts are necessary, foundational building blocks. And one thing we have to do is try to avoid congratulating ourselves on them. You have to continue to understand that this is a life practice. Baldwin said in 1962 that the trouble is deeper than we think because the trouble isn’t us. So it’s going to require an extraordinary effort to finally give birth to a new America. So these sorts of gestures are important, but we have to understand them for what they are. It’s like the 2-year-old who suddenly decides to get up and walk across the room. The balance is not quite there yet. It takes a while.