In 2018, two years after the “disastrous” 2016 US presidential elections, Eddie Glaude Jr, professor of African American studies at Princeton, made a pilgrimage home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, in southern France, where James Baldwin had lived for almost two decades, and which was now being torn down to make way for luxury flats. Glaude, who has taught Baldwin for many years, had come looking for any surviving traces of the writer’s refuge and found that most of it was falling apart. Only the writing room remained, “exposed so that the sun would fall on its side.” Against the backdrop of bulldozers and the clatter of sledgehammers, it “looked like the excavation of an ancient ruin” and recalled “what Baldwin saw in the latter part of his life in America … decay and rubble along with greed and selfishness. ”It became the impetus for Glaude to undertake an excavation of his own.
He decided to commit himself deeply to Baldwin’s work, to try to think “with” him, to interrogate “how an insidious view of race, in the form of Trumpism, continues to thwart any effort to ‘achieve our country,'” and then to write about it. The result is Start again, a book that is perfect for Baldwin fans or anyone experiencing astonishing disbelief at America’s state of disorder and trying to make sense of it. What sets this story apart is that Glaude understands how Baldwin’s writing becomes a path for one’s thoughts; he is able to synthesize the novelist’s work in a way that transcends sum or homage and becomes instead an act of impressive literary assimilation that acquires its own generative power.
At first, he quotes Baldwin’s 1963 speech at Howard University: “It is the responsibility of the black writer to excavate the real history of this country … We must tell the truth until we can no longer bear it.” Baldwin took his own exhortation seriously, producing, according to Glaude, nearly 7,000 pages of writings distinguished by cunning and unwavering elegance, including Notes from a native son (1955) Y Fire next time (1963), which established it as the literary consciousness of the Afro-American resistance at a critical moment in the country’s history. Glaude traces an argument that originates from Baldwin’s 1964 essay “The White Problem”: “The idea of the United States is an outright lie” that has fostered a state of deliberate blindness, which implies not just a refusal to acknowledge that states Unidos was founded on notions of white supremacy, but an interrelated insistence on the innocence of white Americans.
Fusing his own thoughts with Baldwin’s, Glaude posits that the reason for America’s troubles since the arrival of the first group of enslaved Africans has been its unwillingness to confront this lie: “any attempt” to do so would be sabotaged by the fear that we may not be who we say we are. ”Instead of facing the truth about the genocidal horrors of their past, Americans they yearn for “national rituals of atonement.” Thus, as a result of any attempt to unmask it, the lie always moves “quickly to reaffirm itself”, prolonging a long practice of historical gaslighting.
For Glaude, two previous turning points in American history, first, the civil war and reconstruction, and second, the fight for black freedom of the mid-20th century, both attempted to deal with lies and were occasions of “treason.” Barack Obama’s election to the presidency represented another turning point, but hopes were “betrayed”, just as the civil rights movement was betrayed by the turn to Reaganism. Now America faces another “moment of moral reckoning,” the opportunity to “choose whether to become a genuinely multiracial democracy,” and Glaude suggests it should seek guidance in Baldwin’s “navigating its own disappointments.”
He tracks how the brutal response to the freedom struggle, particularly the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr, led to a shift in Baldwin’s thinking, a recognition of the need to avoid “the burden of having to save the whites first. ” Glaude concludes that the answer now is the same as it was then: the urgent need to “get rid of the idea of white America”, which is the only way out of the “bloody racial hamster wheel.” And he suggests that the first step involves what he called in his previous book Democracy in black a “revolution of values”: “This implies telling us the truth about what we have done … It requires centering a set of values that consider every human being sacred.”
Fit Start again it is an essay marvel, spinning and folding in on itself as Baldwin’s reflections on the past and Glaude’s analysis of the present give each other meaning. For example, Baldwin’s understanding that we had to go “beyond” color (misinterpreted by some as self-hatred that “licks boots”) leads to a discourse on modern identity politics through his assertion of that “categories can isolate us from the complexity of the world and the complexity of ourselves”, before returning to the idea that we must tell the truth about who we are. Glaude’s style works in the same way as Baldwin’s, achieving the kind of mimetic evocation of a mind at work that Montaigne described as “The painting of thought” (the painting of thought), except here we have two great minds for the price of one.
In the United States, the book was published in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. In the UK, it was published just after armed pro-Trump protesters staged the attack on the US Capitol, after which “the lie” was still everywhere, in particular the loud, damning chorus that screamed: “This is not who we are! This is not America!” It’s a persistent and predictable refrain, but as always it only begs the question: if it’s not America, why does it keep happening there? Glaude’s attempt to answer this, through Baldwin, points to a way for his country to “imagine ourselves again.” It is a scholarly meditation, deeply personal and yet immensely readable, a masterful acknowledgment of the “latest betrayal” of the American ideal.
• A Fresh Start America and Its Urgent Lessons for Today by Eddie S Glaude Jr’s James Baldwin is a Chatto & Windus publication (£ 16.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism