Many of my friends know of my love affair with James Baldwin (no we did not have sex and sadly I never met him), that began in my ministry studies and continued with my doctoral dissertation, “Bearing Witness to the Dark: Resources for Anti-White-Supremacist, Pro-Same-Sexes, Pro-Feminist Theologizing in Queer Modes” (1999).
Baldwin and the womanist warrior poet and essayist Audre Lorde were my inspiration and interrogators in that project. At that time, in the 90s, I had read and re-read everything Baldwin ever published or was written about him. And since, I have stayed abreast of texts and interviews and the like that were not available then as well as books and articles and films focused on him.
So none of them will be surprised that I am extolling the wisdom and power of a new book that focuses on Baldwin and his relevance for our own time. The book is Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. It is a valuable resource in our time, and especially for those who are considered or consider themselves White. The title is taken from a passage in Baldwin’s novel, Just Above My Head (perhaps my favorite Baldwin novel despite many negative reviews):
Not everything is lost. Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated. If one refuses abdication, one begins again.
Glaude is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and also the author of Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. But his treatment of Baldwin and Baldwin’s importance for us today is no dry academic treatise.
Glaude not only discusses Baldwin expertly but also channels Baldwin in our own moment. The liveliness of his writing and the personal experiences and observations he shares bring the already powerful witness of Baldwin’s observations and writing to a new level, a new depth, from which we can draw sustenance and challenge and courage today. Indeed, Glaude draws upon Baldwin’s view, espressed in an interview conducted by Julius Lester, of what it means to be a writer, namely “to bear witness. . . . to what life is—does—and to speak for people who cannot speak. That you are simply a kind of conduit.”
For me, one of the most important lessons from the book is Glaude’s rendering of what he calls “after times.” He takes the phrase from Whitman who wrote about the time after the Civil War when the echoes of slavery and civil war remained in view in contrast to Reconstruction coming into view even as it was highly contested and ultimately undone.
Drawing on Baldwin’s powerful 1972 book, No Name in the Street, Glaude takes us through what he calls Baldwin’s personal after times. In that works, Baldwin recounts the despair and anger he and so many others felt after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., especially when White America turned away from the struggle for justice (ultimately making King into an icon who was no longer challenging us). Baldwin called it “the lie,” the denial of White people about white supremacy and our central role in sustaining its dominating power in our society.
Glaude relates that to our own day, with the after time that is the age of Trump—the turning away, indeed undoing, the hope engendered by the Obama election, just as it was evident to Baldwin after the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and King, into the 70s and 80s, as it is clear from what happened after Reconstruction with the rise of Jim Crow, lynching, etc.
Thus, he says that Trump is not a new phenomenon but rather the latest manifestation of backlash against forces of change, hanging on to the idea of America as “an identity that white people will protect at any cost.”
In the final chapter of the book, Glaude discusses his visit to the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama built by the Equal Justice Institute. He is deeply moved by the exhibits witnessing to the ugly history of American White Supremacy and by the memorials to hundreds of lynchings of Black people all over this country in the latter 19th and early 20th Centuries. He notices a quote on the side of the Legacy Museum from Maya Angelou, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
Glaude concludes that “what we need is a third American founding,” to try again to achieve what the Founders thought they were doing in the Revolution and the Constitution, and then what others thought they were doing in Reconstruction after the Civil War, to undo what horrors had been done until then—and then the after times of that took us back so we still rely on and glorify the first incomplete founding, despite the horrors that permeate everything to this day.
Glaude writes, “We need an America where ‘becoming white’ is no longer the price of the ticket. Instead, we should set out to imagine the country in the full light of its diversity and with an honest recognition of our sins.” Or as Baldwin would say, it is time to do our first works over.
To do your first works over means to reexamine everything. Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it.
It’s time, America, that we, and especially White America, stopped looking into the distorted mirrors of our alleged greatness, uniqueness, our special call, and spent serious time and effort to look at the true mirror of ourselves as it is revealed by so much that is fundamentally wrong. We must overcome the repeating practice of ignoring the foundation and finally choose to allow ourselves to see what we have become, a country that pretends to be a democracy, and nation of equals, while acting on the deeply ingrained belief in the superiority of White people.
Glaude does not offer a plan to do this, but it is clear the timetable he sees is to get started now (it is one minute to midnight). A good place to begin is reading this book. But then what? What will you do? What will I do? What can we do together, and what must we do individually?
I know I will keep reading and writing (a book I have started to read is White Too Long:The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Robert P. Jones). And I will keep writing about my exploration of White Supremacy and my own complicity in it, knowing that for me writing is how I become more honest.
But I need others. I need you because none of us can do this alone. And as we journey we need to welcome BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) calling us out when they feel the need to do so (but not asking them to teach us yet again what they have been telling us for centuries).
Please offer your own thoughts and let’s begin and continue a dialogue.