It’s hard enough to think back four months, much less four years, but try to recall the early weeks of 2016 — another time, another planet.
Eddie S. Glaude Jr., a professor of African-American Studies at Princeton, had just published “Democracy in Black,” his blistering indictment of the Obama era. Under the watch of the first black president, Glaude wrote, “black people have suffered tremendously.” A Democratic machine that took black voters for granted had convinced Glaude that the only way forward would be an “electoral blank-out.” He called on black Americans to turn out in record numbers again in November 2016 and cast a vote for “none of the above.”
This, mind you, preceded Donald Trump plowing through the primaries to become the Republican nominee. For Glaude, a Trump presidency was completely unfathomable until it actually happened. “White America would never elect such a person to the highest office in the land,” he writes in his new book, “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own,” recalling what he told himself in 2016. “I was wrong, and given my lifelong reading of Baldwin, it was an egregious mistake.”
Over the last several years there’s been a popular resurgence of interest in Baldwin’s work: Barry Jenkins’s film adaptation of “If Beale Street Could Talk” and Raoul Peck’s documentary “I Am Not Your Negro”; Ta-Nehisi Coates’s homage in “Between the World and Me” and Jesmyn Ward’s “The Fire This Time,” a 2016 anthology of essays by a younger generation writing about Baldwin’s legacy with appreciation and ambivalence. Baldwin’s example took on renewed relevance toward the end of the Obama presidency, as soaring hopes collided with an enduring reality of police violence and mass incarceration. Writers found in Baldwin a mix of rigor and freedom: Here was an unsparing diagnostician who nevertheless embraced contradictions.
Glaude is more explicit about looking to Baldwin not just for perspective and inspiration but for instruction and guidance: Combining elements of biography, criticism and memoir, “Begin Again” “aims to think with Baldwin and to interrogate how an insidious view of race, in the form of Trumpism, continues to frustrate any effort to ‘achieve our country.’”
It’s a blunt-force thesis statement that made me wonder if Glaude, who has long written about the devastation wreaked by American racism with insight and candor, might be selling himself short: Does he really need Baldwin to help him understand Trumpism, a movement whose bigotry seems less “insidious” than brazen?
But I soon realized that Glaude is up to something bigger than his own summary allowed. Where a number of writers have paid ample tribute to Baldwin’s essays from the late ’50s and early ’60s, during the early years of the civil rights movement, Glaude finds energy and even solace in the later nonfiction that charted Baldwin’s disillusionment. (Glaude only glances at the fiction, though he takes his title from a line in Baldwin’s last novel, “Just Above My Head.”) Even if you don’t agree with Glaude’s interpretations, you’ll find yourself productively arguing with them. He parses, he pronounces, he cajoles. He spurs you to revisit Baldwin’s work yourself.
The usual critique of Baldwin goes something like this: He pursued his idiosyncratic artistic vision in his early work, but the demands of the historical moment turned him into the political spokesman he never wanted to be. His rolling, winding sentences became harder and harsher. He scolded the white liberals who praised him, and praised the Black Panthers who lampooned him. The critic Hilton Als scathingly depicted this transformation as a surrender: “By 1968, Baldwin found impersonating a black writer more seductive than being an artist.”
Glaude’s defense of Baldwin’s trajectory is more cultural than literary. He imputes a political discomfort to critiques like Als’s that isn’t entirely fair, but he writes ardently and protectively. And in his own struggle to work his way through the welter of our present — what he calls the “after times,” borrowing Whitman’s phrase for America following the Civil War — he finds in Baldwin a cold-eyed realism sustained by a stubborn moral purpose.
Baldwin recoiled at the label of spokesman, identifying instead as a witness — someone who testified to what he saw without presuming to speak for anybody else. “You’re at the mercy of something, which has nothing to do with you, nothing to do with your career, nothing to do with your ambitions, nothing to do with your loneliness, nothing to do with your despair,” Baldwin told his first biographer, in 1963, recalling what he saw on his trips to the American South. It was his “job,” he said, “to make it real. To force it on the world’s attention.”
Not that the world was always willing to look. In “No Name in the Street,” a jangly, intermittently brilliant book from 1972 (“his most important work of social criticism,” Glaude writes), Baldwin describes how white liberals couldn’t bring themselves to accept even the most glaring evidence of police brutality. To them, racism and bigotry were a matter of “hearts and minds,” not power. They maintained an abiding faith in institutions that insisted “the police are honorable, and the courts are just,” Baldwin wrote. The fantasy of innocence was both childish and deadly.
This kind of liberal naïveté comes shrouded in layers of hypocrisy, while Trumpism strides onto stage clutching a bullhorn and wearing a MAGA hat. Glaude considers Trumpism only “the latest betrayal,” the revival of something old and ugly in American politics. He repeatedly invokes what he calls Baldwin’s “nuance and complexity,” but in a state of emergency he concedes that a hard-nosed approach to the election is a necessary first step.
The idea isn’t to return the country to what it was before President Trump; Glaude wants a wholesale re-envisioning, not a complacent restoration. As Baldwin put it in 1980, before Ronald Reagan won the presidential election, explaining the decision to vote for a disappointing Jimmy Carter: “It will be a coldly calculated risk, a means of buying time.”