It was the height of World War II. James Baldwin was a teenager in New York City when, in 1943, riots broke out in Detroit and in Harlem, Baldwin’s neighborhood. The lack of adequate housing, lack of jobs and hostility of the city’s police had precipitated the unrest in Detroit. In Harlem, a Black soldier had been shot in the back by a white police officer. Simmering anger over ongoing racism and its accompanying urban poverty exploded.
All this had a profound impact on the young, gay, Black man who aspired to be a writer. By 1948, it became apparent to Baldwin that he could not remain in the United States. His personal fury at the rampant injustices he and other people of color were daily subjected to forced him to confront unpleasant possibilities. He might murder someone or be murdered himself. His artistic ambitions could be shattered in the crucible of America’s meanness and contradictions. The situation was untenable. Baldwin left for France and would not return for nine years.
Eddie Glaude Jr. is a professor of African American Studies at Princeton. His most recent book, “Begin Again,” is not intended to be another biographical presentation of Baldwin. In moving prose, Glaude reminds the reader of the poignancy of Baldwin’s social criticism and how relevant Baldwin remains for our disputed and distressed moment.
Known more as a public intellectual before he became celebrated for his fiction, Baldwin remained generous with his insights and conversation up until his death at 63 in 1987. Writes Glaude: “In the end, facing the bleakness of his time almost destroyed Jimmy. It took everything in him to survive it and to bear witness on the other side. How he survived may very well help us as we risk everything for a new America.” Indeed, despite persistent challenges and horrors, like the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Baldwin never abdicated the responsibility he felt to remain an intrepid voice and a committed artist.
“To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.” So wrote Baldwin in “The Fire Next Time,” which he penned in 1962. The kind of commitment referred to is not one taken on a whim, like attending the occasional meeting or perhaps engaging in an exciting political foray from which one can escape without personal cost or inconvenience. Like his friend MLK, Baldwin would express frustration with white liberals, whom he said were “racial philanthropists.”
Of course, they are good folks and well-meaning and would not spout racist words or scurrilous comments. But such liberals have the option to retreat back to the quiet suburbs or to a pleasant section of a big city, likely a segregated one. Those are options unavailable to indigent people of color limited by ghetto boundaries and a lack of education and money. As Baldwin stated clearly, he did not want any liberal to do something for him in order to feel absolved from their responsibility for the entrenched indignities of systemic injustice.
Glaude’s recalling of Baldwin’s legacy is an exigent broadside, challenging all American citizens here and now — especially whites —to reflect and take the conscientious, sustained action required to build a republic that truly reflects and nurtures our glowing ideals of freedom and equality. Ever celebrated, these noble aspirations have been consistently betrayed. He refers to this dissonance in our country’s history as “The Lie.” This lie “cuts deep into the American psyche” and “secures our national innocence in the face of the ugliness and evil we have done.”
Speaking to the National Press Club less than a year prior to his death, Baldwin spoke of how America cherishes simplemindedness and sincerity. These are false virtues that contribute to our national immaturity, a willful blindness to the surfeit of violence and blood that gluts our history. Europeans stole the land and then capitalized on slave labor. A lucrative arrangement for some. Baldwin reminded his audience that history is not past, but ripples relentlessly into our present. A fresh and penetrating vocabulary is mandatory if we are to begin anew. The vocabulary that we as Americans have had cannot bear the weight of reality. Baldwin argued that we have all been victims of a European vision of this world, and that particular perspective is obsolete.
In this disruptive time of Trump, Glaude makes clear the dangers replete in the person and administration of this most noxious president. Trump’s base supporters are overwhelmingly white and they cling to the notion that this country, for all of its contemporary diversity and multiples of coloration, is a white nation. Thus, much of the nation remains stuck, as MLK said, in “a poisonous fog of lies.”
How long will this pernicious fantasy persist? What does a large, well-armed, aggrieved segment of the American populace do if it cannot let go of mendacity — a lie desperately held and nurtured? Time and history do move on. Says Glaude: “Something has died. But the ghosts will not leave us alone. True freedom, for all Americans, requires that we confront them directly. Maybe tell a different, better story about how we arrived here. Tell the ghosts to go on and rest; we’ve got this now.”
This book is a vibrant work primed for the very happenings of today. Out of disruption and uncertainty can come a reinvigorated sense of genuine justice. That is our immediate challenge. It is an arduous but not insurmountable task, one we avoid at our collective peril. In the words of Baldwin: “One can only face in others what one can face in oneself. On this confrontation depends the measure of our wisdom and compassion. This energy is all that one finds in the rubble of vanished civilizations, and the only hope for ours.”
Time spent with Glaude and Baldwin in this volume is time well spent. Pay them a visit.
Read more of the Sept. 16-22, 2020 issue.