“I, Jimmy Baldwin, as a black writer, must in some way represent you. I’ll make you a pledge. If you will promise your elder brother that you will never, ever accept any of the many derogatory, degrading, and reductive definitions that this society has ready for you, then I, Jimmy Baldwin, promise you I shall never betray you.”
That 1963 declaration made to students Howard University continues as the author of the books “Notes of a Native Son” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and the plays “Amen Corner” and “Blues for Mr. Charlie” continues to be a moral and social protagonist against the oppression of racism.
“It was an avowal of love and a declaration of his responsibility as a writer dedicated to speaking the truth,” states Princeton University professor and Department of African American Studies chair Eddie S. Glaude Jr. in his book “Begin Again — James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own” (Crown).
Glaude — who says he initially stayed away from the incendiary writings of Baldwin (1924 to 1987) — quotes him as saying it is “the truth that to be an American writer today means mounting an unending attack on all that Americans believe themselves to hold sacred. It means fighting an astute and agile guerrilla warfare with that American complacency which so inadequately masks the American panic.”
Glaude notes that with Baldwin’s view “of the moral role of the writer; his faith in the redemptive possibilities of human beings, no matter their color; and his initial faith in the possibility that the country could change, Baldwin was catapulted to literary fame and emerged as one of the most incisive and honest critics of America and its race problem. His admirers stretched across racial and political spectrums. Malcolm X referred to him as ‘the poet of the revolution.’ Edmund Wilson described him as one of the great creative artists of the country.”
He then says a moral writer, such as Baldwin, “puts aside America’s myths and legends and forces a kind of confrontation with the society as it is, becoming a disturber of the peace in doing so.” And that “Baldwin’s understanding of the American condition cohered around a set of practices that, taken together, constitute something I will refer to throughout this book as the lie.”
Glaude is a man with a keen eye on our times and says the idea of America is in trouble. And “it should be. We have told ourselves a story that secures our virtue and protects us from our vices. But today we confront the ugliness of who we are — our darker angels reign. That ugliness isn’t just Donald Trump or murderous police officers or loud racists screaming horrible things. It is the image of children in cages with mucus-smeared shirts and soiled pants glaring back at us. Fourteen-year-old girls forced to take care of two-year old children they do not even know. It is sleep-deprived babies in rooms where the lights never go off, crying for loved ones who risked everything to come here only because they believed the idea. It is Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his twenty-three-month-old daughter facedown, washed up on the banks of our boarder. Reality can be hard and heartless.
Yet, he says, “Revealing the lie at the heart of the American idea, however, occasions an opportunity to tell a different and better story. It affords us a chance to excavate the past and to examine the ruins to find, or at least glimpse, what made us who we are. Baldwin insisted, until he died, that we reach for a different story. We should tell the truth about ourselves, he maintained, and that would release us into a new possibility. In some ways, as I scoured the rubble and ruins of his life and works, this call for a different story was the answer I found to my own shaken faith. In his last novel, ‘Just Above My Head,’ Baldwin provided the key to surviving and mustering the strength to keep fighting amid the after times: ‘When the dream was slaughtered and all that love and labor seemed to have come to nothing, we scattered . . . We knew where we had been, what we had tried to do, who had cracked, gone mad, died, or been murdered around us.’
“Not everything is lost. Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated. If one refuses abdication, one begins again.”
Glaude returns to the concept of “after times” (that is a time when something new wants to be born) and says he believes we are once again “ourselves living after times” and “suffering through yet another terrible cycle in the tragic history of America.”
He says an example of how a cultural “lie” can distort “our history can be found in how Barack Obama’s election to the presidency was largely framed as an ending: a triumphant climax to the civil rights movement begun decades earlier. The elevation of a black man to the presidency, such a story suggested, represented the notion that all constraints had fallen away, that if a black man could hold the highest office in the land, then surely we as a country had finally and definitively overcome our racist past. In this story, what King began in Montgomery in 1955, Obama finished in triumph at Grant Park on election night 2008. To be fair, Obama himself did not discourage this reading of his own ascendance, even though a simple look at the American landscape at the moment of his election could not have made more plain the hollowness of this story. Still, the lie had a nice ring to it.”
But Glaude proposes a different story, “one in which Obama’s presidency sounded not like an ending but a beginning, the opening of a new movement when the lie and the dreadful consequences might once again be interrogated as it was during the civil rights movement, when the energy of activists and common citizens might be marshalled to bring forth a new country. We saw this in the tremendous response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, in the formation of Black Lives Matter, in the return of the phrase ‘white supremacy’ to the lips of people of all colors to describe the arrangements of American life. Decades of pent-up energy were released into the streets, massed into protests. Civil disobedience found renewed appears, as protesters tried to make plain to the nation the truth of the value gap.
“No wonder, then, that in the last year of Obama’s presidency we saw a resurgence of interest in Baldwin’s life and work. Before Election Day 2016, Baldwin was everywhere in the Black Lives Matter movement. When residents erupted in Baltimore, Maryland, after the murder of Freddie Gray, one activist was seen outside the Western District police station with a sign quoting Baldwin: ‘Ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy of justice.’ Activists throughout the Obama years appealed to Baldwin’s critical insights on social media and reveled in his sexuality as a way of disrupting older forms of black politics (this black queer man represented a different kind of radicalism than the masculinist politics of black male preachers, they maintained). They sought out his works as a way of making sense of a country on the cusp of change, because they were protesting in the streets and walking the corridors of power demanding that change. With a black man in the White House, many believed that, even as the Tea Party shouted, as white nationalists panicked, and as Republicans obstructed, there was a genuine opportunity to fundamentally change the country. Nothing in our past would suggest that it was possible, but nothing in our past suggested we would elect a black man president either.”
Glaude continues to say that “just as it did in response to the civil rights movement, the lie moved quickly to reassert itself. We soon heard cries of ‘All Lives Matter.’ Cops were found not guilty in the killing of unarmed black men. Republican legislatures began to consider bills that would sanction protests. They also passed draconian voter ID laws that would affect the next election in places like Wisconsin. The anger of the Tea Party saturated the country’s politics as many pundits describe their economic angst and downplayed their cultural anxiety about the demographic changes in the country.
“All of this was prelude to 2016, when chants of ‘Make America Great Again’ took center stage. Trump barely won the election but his victory felt like he had split the land in two, and whatever was released from below sucked up most of the oxygen. For many, the far right had taken hold of the reins of government. Trump refused to condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. Tried to ban Muslims from entering the country. Turned on ‘enemies’ within and without. He embraced draconian immigration policies — separating children from their parents and building tent cities to hold them — and declared the so-called caravan of refugees at the southern border a carrier of contagion (leprosy) and a threat to the security of the nation. Contrary to what he claimed during his inaugural address, Trump did not stop the ‘American carnage.’ He unleashed it.”
The book is obviously timely reading with racial and social unrest as part of our daily existence, and Glaude concludes it — one of his seven dealing with religion, race, and philosophy — by saying that he was guided by the writings of and about Baldwin and “reached for Jimmy’s delicate hands to help us in these after times.”
However, he now seems to be heeding Baldwin’s powerful voice and joins in Baldwin’s exhorting Americans to listen to a native son — before we lie ourselves to oblivion.
Begin Again — James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Crown, $27, 272 pages.