Begin Again by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.: A review

James Baldwin seems to be having a bit of a renaissance these days. Through films and documentaries, his life and his life's work have been brought to a new generation. The work of current-day African-American writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jesmyn Ward reference Baldwin and pay homage to him.

But what relevance really do his life and writing have for today's challenges? Eddie S. Glaude Jr. has spent much of his adult life studying Baldwin and he aims to answer that question for us. Indeed the full title of his book is Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.

Glaude refers to our present-day situation as the "after times," a phrase he borrows from Walt Whitman's description of the country after the Civil War. The calumny that marks today's discourse coming out of the highest institution of our national government would seem to fit such a juxtaposition.

Glaude takes us back to the beginning of this fraught era in our history which seems much longer than only four years ago. He was disenchanted with the Obama presidency and with Democrats whom he believed took Black voters for granted. He called on those voters to follow an "electoral blank-out" in the 2016 presidential election. He encouraged them to turn out in record numbers in November of that year and cast a vote for "none of the above" because what difference really was there between the parties and he knew that there was no way that voters would actually put a buffoon like Trump in the White House. In this book he writes, "I was wrong, and given my lifelong reading of Baldwin, it was an egregious mistake."

Indeed.

Baldwin never thought of himself as a spokesperson for a movement; he preferred to call himself a witness. And he witnessed a lot and recorded it in his fiction and nonfiction beginning in the 1940s right up almost until his death in 1987. Those forty-odd years saw the rise and blossoming of the civil rights campaign of the 1960s and the martyrdom of many of the champions of that movement, including most devastatingly for Baldwin Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder. Baldwin suffered deep depression after that event and a loss of hope that America would ever achieve the goals espoused by its founding documents. In the years after, his despair even led him to attempt (perhaps half-heartedly) suicide on two occasions.

But in the end, Baldwin found a way to channel his sorrow with the world and continue his role as a witness, particularly through the nonfiction writing of his later years. His writing always contained at its core a stubborn moral purpose and he was able to bring that clarity of vision to a country that seemed riddled with contradictions. In part, his clear view of his country was occasioned by him living abroad in many of those years. He lived in France for much of that time and also in Turkey. From that vantage point, he was able to see his country as it really existed in the world, without the clouding of day-to-day life events to influence it.

He saw that a motivating factor for many Americans, especially white Americans, was fear. He wrote: "They do not really know what it is they are afraid of, but they know they are afraid of something, and they are so frightened that they are nearly out of their minds." He could have been writing about today's America.

One could definitely see the United States of the past almost four years as a country out of its mind. Glaude writes of our current president: "Contrary to what he declared during his inaugural address, Trump did not stop the 'American carnage.' He unleashed it."

Fear is a part of Black Americans' lives as well but they know what they are afraid of: A society that still does not acknowledge their full humanity in all of its institutions. Racism and bigotry, led by purposeful ignorance, still play an outsized role in our national life even as they did during Baldwin's life and they make it difficult if not impossible to ever achieve justice. Again, in the words of James Baldwin:
Ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy of justice.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars




Comments

  1. I love listening to the way Eddie Glaude Jr speaks, would love to audit one of his classes.

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    1. I have read that his classes are very popular. I can believe that. He's a good writer, also.

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  2. I need to read this and I need to read more of Baldwin. It seems that his thoughts and writings can help folks in our present times navigate though our current crises.

    Eddie S. Glaude Jr. is a frequent guest on Morning Joe, which I watch a lot.

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    Replies
    1. We might all benefit from reading more Baldwin and a reexamination of his insights about the pernicious effects on racism on the racist as well as its victims.

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  3. That last sentence should be framed and hung in the White House.

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    1. I doubt that it would have an effect on the present tenant.

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  4. I had not heard of this book. I am currently reading the biography of James Baldwin by David Leeming and recently ordered some of Baldwin's books which I had not yet read. His insights and writings about our racial problem are timeless.

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    1. This book is quite new. I happened to see a note about it in The Times recently and jumped on it. But there really does seem to be an upsurge of interest in Baldwin and his writing and that is a good thing.

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  5. Judy had mentioned Baldwin's books a few weeks back when I was looking for more suggestions for my BLM reading list (and I am, as always, still looking for suggestions!) and I had not heard of this one. I will be on the lookout for it now, and definitely add it to the reading list. Wonderful review.

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    1. It is definitely a worthwhile read. Highly recommended.

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  6. I've yet to read anything written by James Baldwin. I agree with you in that James Baldwin seems to be having a bit of a renaissance these days. I will have to add one of James Baldwin's books to my ever growing reading wishlist.

    This is so true: Glaude writes of our current president: "Contrary to what he declared during his inaugural address, Trump did not stop the 'American carnage.' He unleashed it."

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    1. We could probably all benefit from reading more Baldwin. He saw our country clearly with all of its warts and still loved it. Glaude seems to have the same clear vision and doesn't mince words.

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