The Disasters We’ve Become

Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own BY Eddie S. Glaude Jr. New York: Crown. 272 pages. $27.

The cover of Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own

DAVID O’NEILL: In Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own (Crown, $27) you write about your student days at Princeton, when you first encountered Baldwin. Can you talk about the initial resistance you felt to his work?

EDDIE S. GLAUDE JR.: There was initial resistance on two levels, but they’re connected. One was that Baldwin just asked too much of me. I had to deal with my own pain as a precondition to saying anything about the world. He believes firmly in the Socratic dictum that the unexamined life is not worth living, and he grounds his social criticism in this idea. In this view, the messiness of the world reflects the messiness of our interior life. So, when you read him, there’s a demand to ask yourself hard questions, to take rude positions with regards to your past. The second dimension of my hesitancy was that when I read Baldwin with my white colleagues, I had to manage their discomfort. Baldwin’s writings left people’s cheeks red and flush. And I found myself having to navigate their responses to his biting indictment.

One potential problem with writing about Baldwin is that he’s almost too quotable. As Hilton Als has pointed out, when we latch onto Baldwin’s rhetoric, we miss a great deal about the man. Begin Again goes much deeper into Baldwin than that. What did you find that gets lost in the popular conception?

What gets lost in all the quotations, to me, is his ongoing effort to muster the energy to keep fighting. The later work is fraught and fitful. He’s trying to come to terms with betrayal and disappointment. There’s the depth of pain and anguish that shapes his voice—this cigarette-coated baritone moistened with Johnnie Walker Black. There’s a deep blues in his voice that often gets lost. And, like Emerson, what gets lost in the easy quote is the substance of the argument. But, Baldwin is in that tradition where some sentences are galaxies.

One of the key ideas in your book is what you call “the lie.” Can you define that term for us?

In my previous book, Democracy in Black (2016), I talk about the “value gap”—this belief that white people matter more than others. And that belief shapes our dispositions and evidences itself in our practices and our social, political, and economic arrangements. The lie is the general architecture we’ve built in order to protect those practices and that belief.

Along with “the lie” and the “value gap,” another phrase that carries a lot of weight is “the fears that move us about.” What is the root of those fears and how do they inform American public life?

Those fears cut so deep. The fear that we’re not who we say we are. The fear that the underpinnings of our fragile experiment in democracy are rickety stilts. There’s a fear of being revealed for who we actually are. That fear is always tethered to the idea that revenge will follow—that these people must hate us. They must want to do to us what we have done to them. I think that sense of impending doom or retribution moves us about. That’s what is in the deep cellar of this country.

James Baldwin, Kensington Gardens, London, 1969.
James Baldwin, Kensington Gardens, London, 1969. Allan Warren

Baldwin’s quote about treating people “as the miracle they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become” gets referenced often, especially now. But it generally appears out of context. Can you fill in the details of what was happening when he wrote it?

When he wrote those words, he was trying to grapple with the fact that they killed Martin Luther King Jr. The idea that they would kill an apostle of love. The bottom half of King’s face was blown off—for what? It’s an insight into this place, about the depth of its cruelty. What follows is really important: “This is not very different from the act of faith demanded by all those marches and petitions while Martin was still alive. One could scarcely be deluded by Americans anymore, one scarcely dared expect anything from the great, vast, blank generality; and yet one was compelled to demand of Americans . . . a generosity, a clarity, and a nobility which they did not dream of demanding of themselves.” While he’s grappling with what they have done, he still understands that we are miracles as well.

That’s the same time, you write, that Baldwin changes who he means by “we.”

By the time of King’s assassination, he’s writing to those of us who are committed to building a more just world, a new Jerusalem. That shift creates a whole lot of anxiety and backlash—Baldwin, the darling of the New York intellectuals, of white liberals, has turned his back on them. He’s fallen under the spell of Black Power—his anger and cynicism has overwhelmed his art. That’s the judgment we see of his later work.

What do we miss if we go along with that critique?

I think the consistency of theme is what we miss. What motivates “Notes of a Native Son,” the questions around love in Giovanni’s Room (1956), the issues around identity and history in Nobody Knows My Name (1961). Those elements are still present—it’s just under different material conditions. What does it mean to write about those issues in the context of a movement at its height? And what does it mean to write about those themes in the context of a movement that has been defeated, in the moment of betrayal and death? Part of what we lose sight of when we buy into that declension narrative—we run past the developments at the level of form. What is he doing with Black language or Black English at this moment? How is he trying to capture Black life in a way that isn’t beholden to a white gaze? Think about what’s going on in If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), or how, structurally, No Name in the Street (1972) moves. When we read it all as declension, we’re losing sight of what he’s doing at the level of the art.

And he’s doing some interesting things that have to do with trauma and memory.

Yes, for me, his most important nonfiction book is No Name in the Street, published in 1972. Baldwin called the book “this mighty motherfucker,” right? He was trying his best to figure out how to pick up the pieces and how to speak to this moment. The first line of the second paragraph of the book lets the reader know that this is about traumatic memory: “Much, much, much has been blotted out, coming back only lately in bewildering and untrustworthy flashes.” The book becomes, at the level of form, a kind of fragmented recounting of what has happened in this compressed period of time. I think Toni Morrison picks up on this and we see it echoed in Beloved (1987). How memory fragments. How embodied memories can be triggered by experience. How forgetting happens. And what work is that forgetting doing?

It reminds me of Baldwin’s idea that our future depends on liberating “ourselves from a vocabulary which now cannot bear the weight of reality.” I wondered how you approach this problem of language as a writer.

The short answer to your question is another question: How can I creatively reach for language or descriptions of our moment that will distill matters and get us to the heart of things? “Value gap,” “the lie”: these phrases are formulations that try to provide a different angle. Or just speak as clearly, and as evocatively, as I can.

“The lie” and the “value gap” are also immediately understandable, but there’s a lot of depth to them. It’s a very careful distillation of many things in a small phrase.

Exactly. That’s what we have to do in this moment, at the level of language, because our words have hemmed us in.

Near the end of the book, you visit the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. I got a sense that institutions like those might be the first step toward something new. Do you share that feeling?

Part of a fundamental reenvisioning of the country involves telling the truth about what we’ve done. The Legacy Museum is truth-telling. It moves you from slavery into the Civil War, Reconstruction, and all the way up to mass incarceration. You find yourself in these spaces where the various moments of US history and the violence of that history coalesce. Then you leave that and experience the kind of haunting serenity of the memorial. You see these coffin-like monuments with names of folks who have been lynched. There’s a confrontation with the ugliness of who we are. Bryan Stevenson makes a point I’ll never forget. He says truth and reconciliation are sequential. First, we have to tell the truth, and then maybe we can reconcile. I’d add a third point: you tell the truth, which sets the stage for reconciliation, which opens up the space for repair.

Lastly, can you tell us what the book’s title, Begin Again, refers to?

It comes from Baldwin’s final novel, Just Above My Head (1979). He says, “Not everything is lost. Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated. If one refuses abdication, one begins again.” And that’s what we have to do.

David O’Neill is a writer and an editor of Bookforum. He coedited Weight of the Earth: The Tape Journals of David Wojnarowicz (Semiotext(e), 2018).