METERichael Ondaatje once wrote that if Van Gogh was “our 19th century artist-saint,” then James Baldwin was “our 20th century saint.” For many, Baldwin’s writing has long been a touchstone of anti-racist humanism, but the meaning of that particular epithet has never landed more emphatically for me than while reading the work of Eddie S Glaude Jr. Start again, his powerful meditation on the enduring legacy of Baldwin’s life and thought, a New York Times bestseller and one of several titles that have spoken to the soul of public outrage over George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis last May.
Glaude, who is a distinguished professor and chair of the department of African American studies at Princeton University (where he has been teaching a seminar on Baldwin for several years), is also a native of Jackson County, Mississippi, the US state that suffered the greater number of lynchings – 581 between 1882 and 1968. The trauma of that inheritance – “our bodies carry trauma forward,” Glaude writes – is never far from the page. Nor is the trauma felt in black America in his parents’ generation when Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968, crushing hopes of a “fundamental change” that had been building up around America’s civil rights movement during the better part of a decade.
It was out of desperation, Glaude writes, that in 2018, two years after what he calls “the disastrous election of Donald Trump,” he began writing this book, “telling myself, they have done it. again. Millions of white Americans had elected Trump, and U.S he would have to deal with the consequences of that choice. “
Recognizing that “betrayal,” like so many previous betrayals of democratic possibility in the United States, perpetrated by those bent on preserving the fantasy that the United States is or ever was a white nation, he recalls his father’s assertion, growing up, of it just didn’t “make white people.” Now Glaude “understood a little better” that separatist impulse as well, although, in these new times of Trumpian descent, it was Baldwin, not his disillusioned father, who he turned to to deal with his despair. “Baldwin,” Glaude suggests, “offers us resources.”
As a figure in the generation of Glaude’s parents, Baldwin was both a giant and an anomaly: the Harlem boy whose depiction of black American life through the great migration (in 1953 Go tell it the mountain) had turned him into a literary sensation when he was still 20 years old. At the age of 30, he was a household name, at which point he dared, at the height of his celebrity, to write, in 1956 Giovanni’s room and 1962’s Another country, from the point of view of the protagonists who were both white and homosexual, winning the affection of liberals and fashionable society, but suffering, as a result, “the label of boot-lickers [back home] to point out that categories can isolate us from the complexity within ourselves ”.
The son of a preacher, Baldwin wrote repeatedly about love and his belief in the future of America as a multiracial society, and his hope of redemption for black and white Americans alike, a vision that perhaps saw his articulation more focused on scorching trials. from 1963, Fire next time, who were seen as giving a voice to the emerging civil rights movement.
However, as the 1960s wore on, and the optimism of the civil rights era met with renewed violence and resistance, Baldwin’s own voice hardened and his tolerance for liberals diminished: “I don’t want to. no one works with me because they are doing something. ” for “he said, and was posed a question, writing in defense of a new generation of radical black youth, the earliest exponents of black power, whether American whites were really worthy of so much energy and concern (as Martin Luther King went on to insist on. which it was).
Then King was assassinated and, like so many others of his time, Baldwin was derailed. “It fell apart,” Glaude tells us. “He witnessed what was happening in the ghettos, where the operation [of white supremacy] millions impoverished. He saw the beginnings of mass incarceration and its effect on black communities. He also felt the emotional trauma of frustrated hopes and expectations. ” He kept witnessing it all and “12 years later,” Glaude continues, “saw the country elect Reagan, a clear indication, if there ever was one, that white America had no intention of changing when it came to issues. racial. ”.
“What we are experiencing,” writes Glaude of the current context, “even with the cameras on our cell phones, is no different than what Baldwin and so many others faced when the black freedom movement collapsed with the rise of the Reagan revolution. “. Baldwin’s response demonstrates the resilience it takes to witness in an age of despair.
There is a common reading of his career, dismissed by Glaude as a “stale characterization”, that reached the peak of his literary genius in 1963; that, from then on, “his anger and politics took hold of him” but that later he lost the nuance, he lost contact with the love that had distinguished his voice at its best, he abandoned his gift of complexity; that after King’s assassination and with the collapse of the civil rights movement, she had left nowhere to go; that in 1972 he was a writer in decline; that at the time of his death from stomach cancer in 1987, he was, to use Darryl Pinckney’s phrase, “a spent force.”
Glaude defies this convention with conviction. He invites us with him to “read Baldwin to the end” and reveals a writer, not exhausted, but lighting the way beyond despair: the work of a saint, if ever there was such a thing. This testimony through dark times, which Glaude maintains are upon us once again, is, he says, the true measure of Baldwin’s greatness: an enduring testimony of his love and belief that America can and should be. something more than it is.
• Starting Over: James Baldwin’s America and His Urgent Lessons for Today by Eddie S Glaude Jr is published by Chatto & Windus (£ 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