Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America
and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own
By Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
$27 272 pp.
I had always wanted to read James Baldwin, but never got around to it until I was on vacation the week after Christmas in a bitterly cold Quebec City in 2017, a few months after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. The lurid tiki-torch-lit images of the rally were not blazing in my mind that night in a French-language bookstore, but the Library of America edition of James Baldwin’s Collected Essays somehow spoke to me anyway. It said, it is time.
All I remembered about Baldwin was that he had written a novel about being a boy preacher, that he was gay (a lesbian friend of mine in graduate school told me once she had seen “Jimmy” in Provincetown hand-in-hand with his lover), and that William F. Buckley, in commenting on Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, had written that he could never understand Baldwin’s saying that in Harlem throwing your garbage out of your window was an act of protest. Most of my life I had been a Buckley-Kirk type of conservative, and so these facts were not liable to make me want to read Baldwin’s work. But Charlottesville had rattled me, shaken me up, and now his essays were beckoning.
Not too many pages into Notes of a Native Son, I took out my notebook and started scribbling down passages. Baldwin was a powerful, mesmerizing writer, especially in his essays. What drew me in at first was his thinking about the role of the artist, and how being an American affects one’s life as an artist. He said things that reverberated within me as a writer and that opened me to his commentaries on race. Now Eddie S. Glaude Jr.’s new book on Baldwin, Begin Again, has reconfirmed Baldwin’s greatness for me. I have read it twice now.
Glaude, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies at Princeton, says in his introduction that he also did not want to read Baldwin at first. He preferred Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man. Ellison’s “nonfiction essays brimmed with philosophical and literary rigor,” he writes, “and I could read them with my white classmates without having to manage their discomfort. Baldwin seemed, at least to me back then, to leave the ground scorched.” Glaude evaded Baldwin for years, knowing that “if I let him get inside my head—inside of me—he would force me to look at myself honestly as the precondition for saying anything about the world.”
“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 writes. The lie is the story we Americans tell ourselves about our history. One group of lies “debases black people,” saying that they are “essentially inferior.” Another group downplays the trauma America has inflicted upon black people. “According to these lies,” Glaude explains, “America is fundamentally good and innocent, its bad deeds dismissed as mistakes corrected on the way to ‘a more perfect union.’” The lie’s “most pernicious effect” is how it causes us to “malform events to fit the story whenever America’s innocence is threatened by reality.”
This happens all the time, but in major ways after the Civil War and again after the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s. Both times white America had a chance to reckon with its reality, and both times it pushed reality away. Trumpism, which Glaude believes has its roots in the Reagan presidency, is the latest manifestation of the lie’s triumph; it marks the third time that after a major victory for civil rights—the election of Barack Obama in 2008—white America has taken a step back from the pursuit of racial justice. The lie “is the mechanism that allows and has always allowed, America to avoid facing the truth about its unjust treatment of black people and how it deforms the soul of the country,” Glaude writes, and goes on to quote Baldwin’s 1964 essay “The White Problem”:
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 is the basis of our present trouble.
In this way, Glaude adds, “Slavery would be banished from view or seen as a mistake instead of a defining institution of systemic cruelty in pursuit of profit.”
Part of the reason we tell ourselves these lies is because they help us process national trauma. Baldwin dealt with plenty of trauma on the personal level: his stepfather, the only father he ever knew, was abusive verbally and physically; the society around him refused to serve him in restaurants while white cops told him to go back uptown where he belonged; and his sexual orientation made him feel doubly rejected at times. But Baldwin insisted that all of us, white and black, had to dive into the trauma—through art and other truth-telling mechanisms—for it to be exorcised. And this is what he strove to do.
Baldwin had been living in Paris for years when he decided he had to return and help with the struggle in America. His first endeavor was to visit the South, where he felt he “had wandered into hell.” He as afraid for his life the whole time, but when he returned to New York, what he understood had shaken him to his core was a “realization of the nature of the heathen.” Glaude elaborates on this time in Baldwin’s life as follows:
The white southerner had to lie continuously to himself in order to justify his world. Lie that the black people around him were inferior. Lie about what he was doing under the cover of night. Lie that he was a Christian. For Baldwin, the accumulation of lies suffocated the white southerner. So much so that Baldwin reached for Dante’s Inferno to express his feelings about it all: “I would not have believed that death had undone so many.”
Baldwin’s solution was that, first, we must tell the truth, and then get people to listen to it. What he wanted to get across to white people was that, to the black person, history was not just a subject. As he put it in his 1972 book No Name in the Street: “One may see that the history, which is now indivisible from oneself, has been full of errors and excesses; but this is not the same thing as seeing that, for millions of people, this history . . . has been nothing but an intolerable yoke, a stinking prison, a shrieking grave.” Though Baldwin understood the movement for black pride and its desire to separate from white society, this was for him a stage in a broader liberationist project, not something to be clung to. Glaude explains:
Baldwin never relinquished the belief that, at bottom, the problem we faced as individuals and as a nation was, and remains, fundamentally a moral one: It was and will always be a question about who we take ourselves to be. Hatred, in the end, corrodes the soul. And as Baldwin said, “I would rather die than see the black American become as hideously empty as the majority of white men have become.” The shibboleth of an essential blackness or mindless rage could lead us there. Only love can fortify us against hatred’s temptations.
But how are we to survive this dangerous road? Baldwin did it by periodically living “elsewhere.” He lived in Paris for many years, then in Istanbul, then back to a village in the south of France. He found that he could write better about America from another country, just as Hemingway had found in Paris when he wrote his classic stories about Michigan. Glaude quotes Baldwin as saying, “I leave and I go back. I leave and I go back. . . . My whole effort is to try to bear witness to something which will have to be there when the storm is over. To help us get through the next storm.” Glaude says we must do the same: not necessarily by going to another country, but by seeking those places where we can shelter within a community of love. “We must search,” he writes, “for an elsewhere to start anew—to love, to critically assess who we are and who we aspire to be, and to seek refuge in the margins in order to fortify our imaginations so that we can rejoin the battle.”
Baldwin came back to America in 1980, shortly after Reagan’s victory. He agreed to be the subject of a film, I Heard It Through the Grapevine, that documented his return to sites of the civil rights struggle in the South. He tried to tell America that the answer to our problems was not to retreat to some imagined “morning in America,” but to face the truth of the ruins around us, to let the trauma sink in, and then do something about it. As Reagan subtly appealed to white resentment with talk of “welfare queens,” “voting with your feet,” and “states’ rights,” Baldwin felt that Americans were retreating into a “weird nostalgia” when they needed to confront “the ongoing terror and brutality of white supremacy.”
One way to face the ruins, to turn away from the “weird nostalgia,” is to visit places where people are striving to tell the truth. In the last chapter of his book, Glaude recounts visits to two such places in Montgomery, Alabama: the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, sometimes referred to as the “Lynching Memorial.” Overall, he says, these museums and others like them “perform the work that establishes the precondition for a new way of imagining America.”
Though I agree with almost all of Glaude’s conclusions, I did have an issue with his statement that concern about Rust Belt Trump supporters implies that their lives are counted more important than black lives. This seems to me to be a zero-sum way of looking at it: surely one can think it important to understand why people voted for Trump, and that it wasn’t always for racist reasons, and still believe that black lives matter just as much as anybody else’s.
Begin Again both documents Baldwin’s journey and demonstrates that it is one which we all, in our own ways, need to take. Baldwin recognized the lie that was told about his people; he faced the trauma that it caused and gave witness to it; he walked the dangerous road that this witness entailed; he never spoke or acted from a place of resentment or hate; he took shelter when he had to in a community of love, but was always willing to come back, engage with difficult truths, and “face the ruins”; and finally, he was always making a new beginning, remembering that, in Glaude’s words, “we are at once miracles and disasters. Demonizing others isn’t the point.” As Baldwin himself summarizes this journey:
There is absolutely no salvation without love: this is the wheel in the middle of the wheel. Salvation does not divide. Salvation connects. . . . It is not the exclusive property of any dogma, creed, or church. It keeps the channel open between oneself and however one wishes to name That which is greater than oneself. It has nothing to do with one’s fortunes or one’s circumstances in one’s passage through this world. It is a mighty fortress, even in the teeth of ruin or at the gates of death.
Frank Freeman’s work has been published in America, Commonweal, Dublin Review of Books, and the Weekly Standard, among others. He lives in Maine with his wife and four children, dog, cat, and four chickens. He hopes to have his books published some fine day.