Urgent lessons from a not-distant past
For a writer who died as the Reagan era was winding down, James Baldwin has become especially relevant over the last few years. Baldwin’s words have come back to the forefront as prophetic prescriptions for how we got to where we are. A new book helps to explain why Baldwin’s work still has so much meaning for all of us and how we can begin again to address the issues that are tearing us apart much as they did in Baldwin’s time.
Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons For Our Own, by Eddie Glaude Jr., isn’t a biography of Baldwin nor a memoir on the part of Glaude; it’s a hybrid that combines elements of Baldwin and Glaude’s stories with the work that Baldwin pursued from 1963 to 1972 (the era bookmarked by The Fire Next Time and No Name In the Street). Glaude, a professor at Princeton, argues that Baldwin began that era with a more hopeful view that whites in America could be “saved” from their racist views, but that the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. destroyed that optimism.
Baldwin watched as the Black Power movement harnessed the anger unleashed by the deaths of these men in a way that left out whites entirely. But that’s not how Baldwin chose to try to undo the damage of white supremacy. Rather, he finally arrived at a moment in the early Seventies when he put it back on the white man that the racism endured by the black population wasn’t the fault of blacks, but the fault (and burden) of whites. We could determine a better future, but only if whites rejected the lie of American history enshrined in the founding document as “all men are created equal.” As a black man, and especially as a black gay man, Baldwin knew how hollow those words sounded.
Glaude presents Baldwin’s writings not just through the prism of his own time but through the prism of our own, when racial unrest and protest are rocking the country at a scale unseen since the heights of the Civil Rights era. The murder of George Floyd has galvinized the Black Lives Matter movement in ways that demand a reckoning on the part of all Americans with what their racial privilege might be.
Glaude writes of his own feelings of alienation and disgust with the election of Donald Trump, whose political career began with the racial lie of birtherism (an oldie but a goodie, as the president has brought it back to use against vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris). He talks about his relationship with Baldwin’s work, and how it evolved from being evasive about reading it to embracing the messages it contains not just for black Americans but for all Americans. Baldwin’s is not the easy, valedictory narrative of “We Shall Overcome,” of racial discrimination defeated by Rosa Parks or MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Baldwin, Glaude argues, was more concerned with the backlash that began almost as soon as the marchers took up their signs and started uphill. Passage of laws regarding voting and housing, even the election of a black president, could not remove the stain of racism from our land or eliminate it from our body politic; if anything, the forces aligned against it grew stronger in the wake of MLK’s death. It’s fashionable in leftist circles to ascribe racial animus in our current debate to the rise of Trump, but as Glaude makes clear through Baldwin’s commentary on the 1980 presidential election, the racist strain has been in the GOP’s DNA since at least Ronald Reagan (not to mention Nixon or Barry Goldwater).
Walt Whitman called the years after a significant-seeming moment of racial justice the “after times.” Glaude takes up that phrase, saying that we either embrace the changes brought about or reject them for the comfort of the “way things used to be”. The weight of reality, Baldwin would argue, can crush the spirit of even the most hopeful campaigner for Civil Rights.
But Glaude doesn’t think that James Baldwin would advocate despair; if anything, Baldwin would want us to have more hope than before. It’s easy to feel caught on the wheel of history, but those who make it move don’t have to be agents of destruction. Ultimately, we need to learn the lesson of honesty from Baldwin’s writings of this era. We must be honest about our history, and honest about the ramifications and reckonings we must have with that history. Those who profit from racism count on despair, but the hope of a better way just might hold them accountable.
James Baldwin famously warned about racial unrest in The Fire Next Time but hoped that the better angels of our nature would reform our murderously racist systems. It’s understandable that he lost that hope in the wake of so much madness. But Glaude says that hope may be the only thing standing between us and a worse turn in our history than previously imagined. It’s up to each of us to be honest about who we are, so that we can be who we imagine we are.