Begin Again, Eddie Glaude
Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, 1963-1972, by Eddie S. Glaude Jr., the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor and chair of the Department of African American Studies. Photo credit: Sameer Khan / Princeton Office of Communications

Newton’s third law of motion says that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The American story of the struggle for racial equality seems subject to a similar law.

Just as America’s founding gave way to the Civil War, and reconstruction to Jim Crow and segregation, the civil rights struggle of the 1960s gave way to repressive incarceration and Richard Nixon, and the election of our first Black president was followed by Donald Trump.

To shed light on this history, we are joined on this special WhoWhatWhy podcast by professor Eddie Glaude Jr. He is the chairman of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton and the author of several books, his latest, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.

In trying to understand the whipsawing of our democatic experiment, Glaude looks for insight to James Baldwin, who he says would have understood where we are today and why. 

He explains why anger is so much a part of the American dialogue and, frankly, why it’s necessary. And yet he reminds us that it was Baldwin, as a sometime optimist, who said that “hope is invented every day.”

Glaude argues that Trump is only “the latest betrayal” in the revival of something old and ugly in America’s politics. The goal, he says, is not to return the country to what it was before Trump, but to rethink the very nature of what an American democracy might look like. In essence, Glaude issues a call to action, to fight the lie at the center of our American self-conception, and to reach for our better angels. 

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Full Text Transcript:

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast, I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. It’s rare that the laws of physics and our ideas of race and politics find common ground, yet Newton’s third law of motion says that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The American story of the struggle for racial equality seems to be subject to those laws, as the founding gave way to the civil war and reconstruction to Jim Crow and segregation, and the civil rights struggle of the sixties would give way to law and order and Richard Nixon, and the election of our first Black president would give us Donald Trump and where we are today.

Jeff Schechtman: One wonders what it is, particularly around the subject of race and the desire to establish a true multiracial democracy, that drives these contradictions and reactions. And equally, what toll does this whipsawing back and forth take in our democratic experiment, its people and those left behind when the moral weather changes. It is no wonder that we are anxious, angry, and exhausted. We’re going to talk about all of this and more today with my guest professor Eddie Glaude Jr. He is the chair of the department of African American Studies at Princeton, the author of several books, including Democracy in Black and his newest work is Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. Professor Eddie Glaude, thanks so much for joining us on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.

Eddie Glaude: Oh, thank you.

Jeff Schechtman: I want to begin and talk a little bit about this contradiction, this idea that we whipsaw back and forth in terms of how we deal, particularly with the subject of race.

Eddie Glaude: Yeah. Whipsaw is a great verb and I think it’s actually a reflection of our hesitancy to confront, and that’s being generous, our hesitancy to confront, our refusal to deal with, at the heart of the problem. That is to say that, as long as we believe that white people matter more than others, no matter how we tinker around the edges, that belief and the way it evidences itself in our practices and our dispositions will lead us to, in some ways, these moments of crises, because in some ways that belief and the dispositions that eventuate from it, or that follow from it, run counter to the very principles of democracy themselves. And so, we’re constantly whipsawing because we’re living in contradiction and we’re living, in some ways, the lies that hide us, that hide from us, the contradictions that are at the heart of the country. If that makes sense.

Jeff Schechtman: And talk about what that lie is, that the lack of honesty and authenticity, to use a popular word, that really undermines so much of the discourse, and really, as you say, leads to this contradiction.

Eddie Glaude: Yeah. There’s a moment in the 1964 essay written by James Baldwin entitled “The White Problem,” there was this passage that I came across, that I thought captured the heart of the issue. And he said, he wrote, ‘The people who settled the country had a fatal flaw, they could recognize a man when they saw one, they knew he wasn’t anything else, but a man, but since they were Christian, and since they had already decided that they came here to establish a free country, the only way to justify the role this chattel was playing in one’s life was to say that he was not a man. For, if he wasn’t, then no crime had been committed. That lie,’ Baldwin writes, ‘is the basis of our present trouble.”

Eddie Glaude: So, part of what he’s saying is that the discourse that has developed around these particular folk, who came to the country, who were brought to the country as chattel, had everything to do with their capacities, their passions, right? We had to, in some ways, dehumanize these folk. And we built a society based upon that notion, it’s almost… There’s an apocryphal story that John Adams said to King George, ‘We will not be your Negroes.’ At the very moment in which he’s giving voice to an idea of freedom is predicated upon an intimate understanding of unfreedom. And so, the lies we tell about Black people, the lies we tell about what we have done in the world and the lies we tell to protect our innocence, all in some ways become a part of the architecture of America’s self-understanding. And whenever there is an attempt to kind of disrupt that, we find ourselves in a crisis like we’re in now.

Jeff Schechtman: Why does that create then, any reason for hope, whether it was the kind of hope that Baldwin expressed so many times or a hopeful tone that you sometimes strike in Begin Again? There’s every reason to not be hopeful.

Eddie Glaude: Baldwin has this line, and I’m paraphrasing this here, after the assassination of King, when the country killed an apostle of love, assassinated an apostle of love. And he says that human beings are at once miracles and disasters, and we have to protect ourselves oftentimes from the disasters that we’ve become. ‘Hope is invented every day,’ he would say later in 1970. It’s not guaranteed, but wherever human beings are, we have a chance, even though we’re disasters, we are also miracles, we can do the impossible at times.

Eddie Glaude: And so, I think the hope that I express at least, I don’t want to speak for Baldwin, the hope that I express has everything to do with my faith in the capacity of human beings to be otherwise, even though oftentimes we fail and we fail miserably.

Jeff Schechtman: Is there a difference between hope in human beings, hope in individuals to rise above this, and to think that it can somehow be institutionalized, that we can change 200-plus years of institutions and a system and a concept that has grown up a certain way?

Eddie Glaude: Sure. I don’t think the systems and institutions and structures are historical phenomena, they don’t exist apart from human doings and sufferings. They are actually the result of choices and actions. And so if human beings can make it, human beings can undo it. Think about how many instances of the French nation have we had, they even start the calendar over, when you think about it, as they try to reimagine themselves over the course of their history. America’s relatively young, right? What does it mean for us to kind of look the facts of who we are squarely in the face, to look our deathly failure squarely in the face, to actually grapple with the fact that demographically we are multiracial, multiethnic — and we need to tell a story that reflects that. So, I think my hope in individuals is not a kind of crude individualism where I’m only concerned about your taste and my own, but rather that human beings in solidarity with one another can build a more just world; I have absolute faith in that. Understanding though, that human beings can also build a world shot through with ugliness and evil.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk about it in our current context and this desire to sort of get out of where we are now, but without a whole lot of focus on what comes next.

Eddie Glaude: Yeah. But that’s typical of the American ideology, right? As long as we believe that America is the shining city on the hill, as Ronald Reagan added the adjective to John Winthrop’s phrase from A Model of Christian Charity, as long as we believe we’re an example of democracy already achieved or the Redeemer nation, then we’re just going to tinker around the edges. We’re not going to try to figure out how to really, really imagine a different way of being together. And so the way in which the lie reasserts itself is to hold back any kind of fundamental reassessment of who we are. And what we have to do is insist in those moments, in a moment like we have now, on resisting traditional frames that narrow how we might imagine a more just America.

Eddie Glaude: So, for example, in the context of the debate around policing, you hear protesters shouting, ‘Defund the police.’ And what they mean by that, if we take them at their word is really a basic claim that our budgets reflect what we value. We should not be spending as much money on cops and carceration, We should be deploying resources that speak to the underlying conditions that actually produce criminal behavior. We should decriminalize the code in some ways, because you could breathe in the United States knees and you can break a law, right? So, part of, we have that argument, but what do we hear, Jeff, in response, we hear calls for law and order, clamorings for the old frame. And even as there is an uptick in violence across American cities, and no one is trying to ask the question why, they’re just calling for law and order.

Eddie Glaude: Well, hell, COVID-19 has left 45 million Americans unemployed, over 45 million of us are trying to figure out how we’re going to keep a roof over our heads or how we’re going to put food on the table. People who were already in resource-deprived communities, who were struggling, are now struggling even more. So we can tell a story about why we would see an uptick. It’s the question of who we value and what we value. So, in these moments, the short answer to your question, we need to resist what we’ve done in the past, which is comfortable, and offers us an illusion of safety, and dare to imagine a much more robust understanding of the public good. If that makes sense. I don’t know if that makes sense.

Jeff Schechtman: Indeed. And one of the things you talk about is that Baldwin would have really understood the current moment, understood where we are, and how we got here.

Eddie Glaude: Yeah, yeah. He saw it, you think about it, he lives long enough, he dies December 1, 1987. So, he lived through the tumult of the 1960s, the civil rights movement, the Black Power movement. He saw what happened in the election of 1979 when the country reached for fantasy. And that campaign of ‘79 and the election of ‘80, the country reached for a Hollywood fantasy and elected Ronald Reagan, the charming actor who made America great again. And for many Black activists, Reagan was as bad as George Wallace, right? It’s a backhand to the face in some ways. So he saw the nation reach for this fantasy because they wanted to hold on to this belief that white people matter more than others. And they want it to hold onto a society organized that reflected such a thing.

Eddie Glaude: And so, in some ways, when you read him closely, you can see him spying a Donald Trump on the horizon, that we would continue to reach for our fantasies in those moments when the nation seemed as if it was changing. There’s so much anxiety in the country, Jeff, around these demographic shifts, so much anxiety in the country as a result of wealth inequality that one 10th of a percent are extracting resources daily and people are working harder and longer and barely making ends meet. There’s so much anxiety here and people are scapegoating as we all want to do.

Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that sits at the heart of that is this disconnect that you talk about, how Baldwin saw between hearts and minds on the one hand and the exercise of power on the other, and how those two things were perceived differently.

Eddie Glaude: Yeah. If we keep them separate, then we’re in trouble, yes? And he wanted to insist on this, even as he understood the reason why some of the young people in SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and others cried out ‘Black Power. We don’t want freedom now anymore, we want Black Power.’ Baldwin insisted on the moral underpinnings of the question that was before us and before the country. And I would say this just as a preface, we need to understand that many of the people who cried ‘Black Power!’ who shouted, ‘Black Power!’ also risked their lives in nonviolent action. Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) was one of the best nonviolent organizers in the country, said he only broke nonviolent discipline once when a police officer attacked Dr. King. So, we often think of the civil rights movement and Black Power as wholly separate when you have the same actors in both moments.

Eddie Glaude: So Baldwin though understood the justification, why people were angry and rageful, why they clamored for power, but he also understood that at the heart of all of this was the moral question about who do we take ourselves to be? And that we couldn’t lose sight of that. Even as we clamored for policy, that would fundamentally change the landscape, we needed to be clear that the stakes centered around our own self-conception, what we valued, who we valued, were we extending dignity and standing to our fellows, did we commit to the sacrality of every human being, every child, right? And so you could acquire power and not hold those views. And then we’re just flipping the script, you see. And that would be a problem.

Jeff Schechtman: And one of the things that it gives rise to, that disconnect, is an awful lot of anger. Talk about that and how Baldwin saw that anger?

Eddie Glaude: Yeah. On a certain level, if you’re not angry, then something’s wrong, right? At least if you’re Black in this country, how could you not be? I’m a professor at Princeton, I live in some ways what the American dream is often represented as, but I worry about my child, my son, as if I wasn’t at Princeton. That the world is so shot through with ugliness and evil and racism, these daily slashes, if you’re not angry, what are you doing? In some ways you’ve become adjusted to the injustice.

Eddie Glaude: So the first thing we have to do is understand how reasonable rage is in this moment, but we need to be clear, and Baldwin was insistent on this, that the rage cannot turn into hatred because the hatred is corrosive of the soul. So for Christians, the righteous indignation of Jesus in the temple, turning over tables. That has something to do with seeing the world organized in such a way that that indignation expresses itself in outrage, but it cannot lead to hating people because then that destroys you. So the disconnect can lead to anger because people are dying. People are losing loved ones. Think about it, Jeff, we live in a society that has witnessed the country lock up millions of people, just throw them away, right? And so to be angry about that means that you have some moral sense about yourself, but then the question becomes, what then do you do?

Jeff Schechtman: And for Baldwin, he was afraid of that anger, that was part of the reason that he went to Paris.

Eddie Glaude: Well, he wasn’t afraid of the anger, he was afraid of the hatred. So, the thing that he came to realize, that the anger that translated into hatred corrupted his stepfather’s soul, it began to consume him. It’s just like that moment in The Fire Next Time, when he realizes that Black Christian witness in this certain moment that he describes, it’s still caught, it’s still trapped, it’s not making one large or more expansive in some ways.

Eddie Glaude: So, what he was worried about is that the hatred that his father had for white folks and how that hatred was eating him alive was in him, that when he was here right here at Princeton in Route 1 and the white waitress refused to serve him. And he hurled a glass at her head and shattered the glass behind her. And then he had to run for his life. He realized that he had to leave the country because either he was going to kill somebody or somebody was going to kill him. And so what he had to do is he went to France, and Paris, and literally had to find the space to breathe so that he could deal with what was in his gut, right? So it’s not necessarily anger. Baldwin was always angry. It’s range and love alternate in some ways, but the hatred is what we had to tote at arm’s length.

Jeff Schechtman: How did he see that as it related to art, his work as an artist, as a writer, and the role of artists in this kind of environment?

Eddie Glaude: Oh, that’s such a great question. I’m always hesitant to kind of put words in his mouth. So, I’ll just describe what I think here. And I think Baldwin understood himself as a poet in the Emersonian sense of the word. And the poets are in some ways the mouthpieces of the gods as it were. And so, he is trying to give a voice to human experience that allows us to see at a much deeper level who we are and what we’re up to, as we try to make our journey from womb to tomb. And so that romantic impulse is always in his work.

Eddie Glaude: But he’s also indebted to another aspect of the poet that comes out of the Hebrew tradition, that is the Hebrew prophet, that is a prophetic kind of voice. So the poet has to bear witness, has to make the suffering real, right? So, it’s not only giving us a sense of the expansiveness of human doings and what we’re up to, but it’s also to bear witness to the suffering that is a part of our human doing and suffering, if that makes sense. So as an artist, his pen is always drawn to the pain, right? It’s always drawn to the depths of human being. And you see that over time that he’s trying to find ways to capture at the level of form and in light of how he thinks aesthetically, how to capture that under different material conditions. So, he’s always the artist, even when people think he’s being most polemic.

Jeff Schechtman: In many ways, Begin Again is kind of a follow on to what you wrote about on the Obama administration in Democracy in Black; what might have been different that might’ve led us to a different place today during those eight years?

Eddie Glaude: There is a sense in which a kind of gradualism kind of rooted in perhaps Obama’s Niebuhrian realism — he said he was fond of Reinhold Niebuhr — that led to a kind of cautiousness. That’s an odd sentence. Let me just say it more clearly: is cautious. And by virtue of being cautious, and there are a variety of reasons why he was I think, he played within the frame. And so, I think Anand Giridharadas put this point, I think best, with an analogy. He said for decades, we played in one particular kind of field. He likened it to a sports arena. Politics happened for decades in the sports arena that was defined by FDR and the New Deal. And so there were certain sets of assumptions, certain understandings of what constituted the good that define that political arena. Reagan gets elected in 1980 and he builds another arena, different sets of assumptions in some ways, designed to demolish the New Deal. And that frame, that field has been the field upon which we’ve played politics. And that field is devastating. It has devastated workers, in some ways it has deepened racial wounds. It has been a difficult space to do good in some ways.

Eddie Glaude: And so, what Obama did was kind of tinker in that field, as opposed to saying, ‘We need to do something dramatically different.’ And that’s where I kind of criticized him, right? I said, once we heard Mitch McConnell say, ‘We want you to be a one term president.’ Once you saw that Republicans were not engaging in good faith, why the clamor for bipartisanship, go big unless you were committed to a different kind of politics, in some thoughts, you were.

Jeff Schechtman: Given that, what do you see in the current moment that could change any of that?

Eddie Glaude: Well, I see folk clamoring in the streets for something new, for something different. They’re risking their lives in the middle of a global pandemic. What are we seeing in Portland? What did we see in Minneapolis? What did we see all around the country? A cross section of America, risking everything. We see a kind of reckoning around our public history, our public memory. And at the same time, we see a reassertion of the lie. It always happens. But I think in some ways there is this realization, at least among millennials and Gen Z-ers, that the country is broken, that what was didn’t work, that America isn’t working anymore.

Eddie Glaude: And these young folk are drawing this conclusion because they have come of age amid catastrophe, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s great recession, whether it’s mass school shootings, whether it’s police murders, within global pandemic. They’ve come of age in a time when the country seems to be broken. And many of them are reaching for new vocabulary. Some are reaching for something more progressive. Others are reaching for authoritarian fascist language, the Boogaloo Bois aren’t baby boomers. Dylann Roof isn’t a baby boomer.

Eddie Glaude: And so, it looks a lot like what’s happening across the globe, as authoritarian tendencies are running up against people who are clamoring for a more robust understanding of the public good. If that makes sense. So, my faith of course, is in us, wherever human beings are, we have a chance, but there’s no guarantee.

Jeff Schechtman: Professor Eddie Glaude, his book is Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. Professor, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.

Eddie Glaude: Oh, thank you. I really appreciate.

Jeff Schechtman: Thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy, I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it, by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Allan Warren / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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