Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lessons for Our Own

Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
Crown ($27)

by Mike Dillon

In her much-lauded These Truths: A History of the United States, Jill Lepore noted the convergence of a pair of history-altering events in the Colony of Virginia. The General Assembly, convened in Jamestown on July 30, 1619, constituted the first elected, representative gathering on the North American continent. Less than a month later the first slaves arrived in Jamestown from Africa. Lepore thus puts her finger on the dawn of America’s enduring wound.

Four centuries later, America still struggles with the realities of the ever-present past. In Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, Eddie S. Glaude Jr. has issued a piercing call to the American conscience. Written before, and published just after, the killing of George Floyd, Begin Again is a book for our times. “The American idea is indeed in trouble,” he notes. “It should be. We have told ourselves a story that secures our virtue and protects us from our vices. But today we confront the ugliness of who we are—our darker angels reign.”

Glaude, born in 1968, is a professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and author of six other books, including Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. Baldwin, one of America’s canonical writers, was born in 1924 and died in 1987 at age sixty-three. Growing up in a large family in Harlem, bullied by his stepfather, the teenage Baldwin possessed the intellectual and spiritual wherewithal to come to terms with being Black, gay, and gifted. His first novel, 1953’s Go Tell it on the Mountain, followed two years later by a collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son, made him famous. Baldwin’s literary gravitas added a beautifully cadenced, prophetic voice to the burgeoning Civil Rights movement.

Weaving Baldwin’s story with his own, Glaude has constructed a narrative of psychic anguish and the heroic resistance of the heart. “My engagement with Jimmy over these many years has been, in part, an arduous journey of self-discovery,” he writes. “Reading and teaching his words forced me back onto myself, and I had to return to my wounds.” The book’s title comes from a line in Baldwin’s 1979 novel, Just Above My Head. “Not everything is lost,” Baldwin wrote. “Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated. If one refuses abdication, one begins again.”

Glaude has created a framework for White America to step into that most difficult of human endeavors: imagining what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. His emotional honesty is unsparing. While Glaude has plenty to say about the malignity of Trumpism, Begin Again offers no refuge for liberal virtue-signaling. “Trump cannot be cordoned off into a corner with evil, racist demagogues,” he writes. “We make him wholly bad in order to protect our innocence. He is made to bear the burdens of all our sins.”

In an opening chapter titled “The Lie,” Glaude observes, “Since the publication of Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin had insisted that the country grapple with the contradiction at the heart of its self-understanding: the fact that in this so-called democracy, people believed the color of one’s skin determined the relative value of an individual’s life.” Later, he quotes a paragraph from Baldwin’s 1964 essay, “The White Problem”:

The people who settled this 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.

The lie was obscured by Obama’s presidency, Glaude maintains, which framed itself as the apotheosis of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. “Both Obama and Black Lives Matter indicated a significant shift in the political climate of the country,” Glaude writes. “And millions of white Americans did not like what they saw.”

Begin Again probes our racial history, and Baldwin’s biography, to illustrate how the past spring-feeds the times we’re in. The soporific mantra of All Lives Matter in response to Black Lives Matter reflects our historical fork-in-the-road. Which will we choose: Plymouth Rock and its 1620 creation myth or an honest reckoning with the consequences of 1619?

Baldwin’s, and Glaude’s, call to White America’s conscience begs the question: Are we, as a nation, equipped to live an examined life, to assume what Wordsworth called “the philosophic mind,” at a time when an alarming chunk of the American electorate is caught up in a Dionysian crusade against facts? Some readers may be reminded of Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s visceral meditation on what it means to be a Black man in the United States, but Glaude is more understated that Coates, less drivingly poetic; he writes in a lower, forensic register that achieves its own kind of poetry, and serves as counterpoint to Baldwin’s lyrical lava.

Near the end of the book, Glaude visits the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, which chronicles the Black experience from slavery to mass incarceration. The building sits close by what had been one of the busiest slave auction sites in America. Maya Angelou’s words are emblazoned across the museum’s side: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” Glaude takes the reader inside: “I got the sense that what was happening as people confronted the violence was an attempt to give voice to the trauma at the heart of the American experience—not just an attempt to depict the scars and bruises endured by black people, but to show what that violence had done to the soul of white Americans.”

Begin Again ends at the grave of James Baldwin in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York: “I didn’t say much at the grave site. I kneeled down and quietly said, ‘Thank you,’ as I touched his grave. I stood up and thought to myself, I’ve been reading Jimmy for thirty years. He has been waiting for us. Waiting to see what this history of ours, once we pass through it, has made of us all. He still waits.”

Which begs another question, old as Scripture: How long, oh Lord?

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