Glaude sits back from a safe distance on our MSNBC screens, away from Baldwin’s edginess while constantly acknowledging it.
Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.
Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
New York: Crown.
239 pp. $27.
Reviewed by Todd Steven Burroughs
In America once upon a time in the 20th century, there were two types of Black activists: those who felt that America could not be their home any longer and those who felt there was no other choice. Those who attempted to walk away from America include Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture, W.E.B. Du Bois, many members of the Black Panther Party, and Robert F. Williams. In the second category includes the radical, on-the-way-to-being-assassinated Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, and now, an entire generation of Black public intellectuals who walk through this radical history and, like Alex Haley, come to no conclusion that angers the status quo.
So Eddie Glaude, a Princeton religion/Africana Studies professor and protégé of Cornel West, shows deft skill and a strong knowledge base in his meditation on James Baldwin, a writer and public intellectual who fit both categories as an intellectual double-agent for and against America.
Decades after Baldwin’s titanic struggle, Glaude sits back from a safe, comfortable, accepted distance on our MSNBC screens, away from Baldwin’s edginess while constantly acknowledging it. Glaude’s subtle tension is because of the obvious-but-not-articulated: the late 1960s-early 1970s desire to be a non-Western world citizen has been permanently crushed by the (economic) powers that be. Although the anti-(Eurocentric) Christian, anti-Western perspective Baldwin openly considered in his angriest movements–a posture Leftists around the world still attempt today–is not completely intellectually homeless, it stays in the margins of Glaude’s text.
But, to Glaude’s credit, there are many such margins:
- “In the years after The Fire Next Time, Baldwin openly questioned capitalism—even commending, with Bobby Seale, a ‘Yankee Doodle’-type socialism. He relentlessly criticized white supremacy, railed against U.S. imperialism, and prophesied the end of the West. In his open letter to Angela Davis in 1970, he succinctly summarized that politics: ‘We know that we, the Blacks, and not only we, the Blacks, have been, and are, the victims of a system whose only fuel is greed, whose god is profit. We know that the fruits of this system have been ignorance, despair, and death and we know that the system is doomed because the world can no longer afford it—if indeed, if ever could have….The enormous revolution in Black consciousness which has occurred in your generation….means the beginning of the end of America.’ The shift in Baldwin’s politics included a full-throated, if vague, criticism of the systems of exploitation. Perhaps his flirtation in his younger years with the Young People’s Socialist League and Trotskyism had not been completely cast aside. For most of his critics, his politics were a step too far.”
- “By 1968, Baldwin admitted that he was not the man that he used to be and, in a fit of rage, shouted that he could care less about what happened to the country. White people deserved whatever happened to them, he said. The problem is that we don’t deserve any of it.”
- Glaude quoting his subject: “But I do not believe in the promise of America in the same ways. There will be no moral appeals on my part to this country’s moral conscience. It has none.”
- “The change in Baldwin’s tone would only deepen as the intensity of the brutality of American life reached a fever pitch, as King died, and then Bobby Hutton, and then as riots swept over American cities. Baldwin witnessed near-daily acts of violence against Black people, from the relentless repression of Black Power by law enforcement, to shoot-outs with Black Panthers, the gagging of Bobby Seale in a Chicago courtroom, and the murder of Fred Hampton—all of it collapsed into an unimaginably short period of time.”
What is the point of studying Baldwin? Glaude has his own ideas. Here are this reviewer’s:
Much has been made about Baldwin’s trans-Atlantic commuting: his idea that he neither can stay in America nor really leave it. But his real commuting was between colonized and decolonized thought, and Baldwin, a lapsed Christian who never left the Bible as his linguistic framework and agape as fundamental to his person, voluntarily had to pick the side he felt would lead to love and enlightenment instead of hate’s inevitable destruction.
So where Glaude points out the lie of white supremacy is based on the fear, recent events have proven that that that terror—that all that is white will be forever soiled with the dark blood of history and truth—is not unfounded. (Showing serious insight, Glaude has a very timely discussion here about Confederate statues.) Not surprisingly, the Princeton professor believes that values will save America. But unlike King’s “world house” socialistic-alternative-to-violent-rebellion vision at the end of Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, his is largely a politics-of-hope plan, one without real risk, threat, or consequence. This reviewer wonders if his end would be so politically weak if he had known the George Floyd revolt was coming.
What makes Baldwin appealing is that, at the end of his day, he was the fierce American-democracy-critic so many Black public intellectuals–like the well-meaning Glaude, at his most liberal–are so comfortable with promoting as Africana thought in 2020. “Until the end, Jimmy never stopped being a disturber of the peace.” True. But that idea has softer meanings today. Publicly-articulated truth now has very clear boundaries. Comfort and disturbance are eternal foes, correct? After all, no one today is going to risk access to Harvard, Princeton, The New York Times, et. al. (It’s important to point out here that for all his theatrically radical pronouncements and occasional physical risk at a rally, Glaude’s mentor West has never really left the first two in the last 35 years or so.) Today, the consequences of even attempted de-colonization are dire.
So what separates Baldwin from his admirers was that, in the tradition of many 19th- and 20th-century truth-tellers, he did not crave any constant mass-media or elite university access to survive and thrive on his own terms. Regardless of his eventual sense of permanent détente with America, Baldwin’s courage is so greater than today’s many, monied present talkers because, unlike them, he was actually searching for freedom. And he understood then that there was no way to do that in America and avoid America’s public disappointment. Because, as Glaude knows and articulates well in this beautifully-crafted and intellectually-thorough book, the only crime worse than betraying yourself is being a coward in doing so.
Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D., is an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J. He recently completed a draft of Talking Drums and Raised Fists: Mumia Abu-Jamal, A Biography of a Voice and is working on a second Abu-Jamal book, a biographical anthology. He is the author of Warrior Princess: A People’s Biography of Ida B. Wells, and Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, From Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates, both published by Diasporic Africa Press. His 2014 audiobook, Son-Shine On Cracked Sidewalks, deals with the first mayoral election of Ras Baraka, the son of the late activist and writer Amiri Baraka, in Newark.