Editor’s Note: Princeton Professor Eddie Glaude Jr. will be the guest speaker for the Capital Region Antiracism Training Initiative’s Oct. 6 virtual discussion. He’ll discuss his new book, “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own,” and other issues surrounding race in America. Today, we feature a review of Glaude’s book by Hayward Derrick Horton, one of the leaders of the Capital Region Antiracist Training Initiative.
Eddie Glaude Jr.’s latest book, “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own,” is very enjoyable for the same reason it’s an easy read: the flow.
Glaude’s writing has a flow that picks you up and carries you through a montage of history, politics, literature and, dare I say, sociology of racial dynamics in the United States.
The focal point of this literary journey is the brilliant yet troubled James Baldwin. In fact, this book can be correctly viewed as a conversation between Glaude and Baldwin, or at least his post-Civil-Rights-Era writings. Glaude seeks answers and solace from his own disappointment with the state of affairs in contemporary America by engaging Baldwin’s similar despair with the same during the latter years of his career.
The book opens with Glaude visiting the remnants of Baldwin’s home in France and closes with a visit to the latter’s gravesite in Hartsdale, New York. The symmetry is noted.
What is also obvious is that Baldwin is more than a subject for the author. On many levels, Glaude relates to Baldwin. Of course, there’s the obvious similarity of being black men in America, albeit in different eras. But more so than that, they are both artists.
One of their strengths is the ability to turn a critical eye on America and sharply articulate its faults. The obvious weakness is the romantic optimism that somehow this country will finally get its race problem right.
That’s the same romanticism that would lead Glaude to advise others not to vote for any candidate in the 2016 election and write in “none of the above,” and yet be surprised when white America (even whites with Ph.Ds.) overwhelmingly voted for Trump!
The same type of romanticism that leads Glaude to look toward a mythical “we” and “us” when it comes to solving America’s pervasive race problems. This is particularly ironic when in contemporary times the U.S. is too divided for there to be a “We Are the World” approach to solving basically any of its issues.
Glaude argues that what links Baldwin’s America with modern times is the “lie.” This is the long-held view that blacks are of lesser value than whites. I call this America’s mythology based upon the unholy trilogy: racism, white supremacy, and white privilege.
Baldwin despaired with the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the elections of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Glaude was dismayed by the ascension of Donald Trump. All three came to power riding the horse of hate and division, with black folks as scapegoats.
The mythology is as strong as ever. At this writing, black America is reeling from the grand jury decision in Louisville, Kentucky, on the Breonna Taylor case. Not one of the cops was held liable for killing the 26-year-old black woman as she slept in her own bed. One officer was indicted for shooting stray bullets into the apartment of Taylor’s white neighbors. Once again, America clearly demonstrates that black lives definitely do not matter.
Baldwin would certainly be upset with this ruling. It’s safe to say Glaude is. But again, there is no unified “we” on this issue. Many whites support the police in this case. The mythology persists.
A key point of Glaude’s book is Baldwin’s need to get away from America. Baldwin found refuge in Paris as well as Istanbul. On foreign shores, he could recuperate from the trauma of being black in America. Outside of the U.S., he could better analyze and critique it. Away from home, Baldwin could find his voice. In this “elsewhere” Baldwin could find peace of mind.
Indeed, to be black in America can often be akin to living in a terrorist state. Just as in Baldwin’s time, it is still life-threatening to be in white spaces at the wrong place and at the wrong time.
Glaude points to the fact that because of the mythology, there is a constant advance and retreat on the state of black folks. Whenever there is glimmer of hope, it is invariably snuffed out. It is because of the mythology that many critics argued that Baldwin transformed from an artist to a black writer. Glaude notes that in the later stage of his career, Baldwin was disillusioned with the tactics of the Civil Rights Movement and more sympathetic to the philosophy of Black Power.
He was also less tolerant of white liberalism. Yet, despite the endurance of the mythology, Baldwin clung to the romanticism that ultimately, America would change. Glaude has followed suit.
That being said, “Begin Again” is an important and powerful book. It is arguably the most insightful work on Baldwin to be published in the 21st century. It is superbly written and is likely to inspire a new generation of scholars to engage Baldwin’s work.
While it does not provide a blueprint for the advancement of black America, it does represent a strident call of protest against the current climate of antiblack racism that pervades these times.
In short, it is a call for hope. Perhaps that in and of itself is a useful place to begin.
Hayward Derrick Horton is a professor of sociology at the University at Albany. He serves on the leadership committee for the Capital Region Antiracist Training Initiative and is director of the group’s Allyship Institute.
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