Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.

  • Baldwin insisted that it was outside of the US that he came to understand the country more fully
  • in the later part of his life, he saw decay and wreckage alongside greed and selfishness
  • what do you do when you have lost faith in the place you call home?
  • we have to decide whether or not we truly want to be a multiracial democracy
  • who “we” are as a country is changing for the worse — the “we” we are becoming is unrecognizable to ourselves
  • step back into the past that can never be retrieved — MAGA
  • baldwin realized he could not save white americans — white americans had to save themselves
  • embraced the prattle of Black Power after he gave up on white americans
  • baldwin never gave up on the possibility that all of us could be better though
  • we would do so without the burden of having to save white people first
  • lies gave birth to more lies
  • what we made of ourselves in our most private moments, we made of our country
  • new experiences cast old ideas in a different light
  • his view of a writer forces a confrontation with the society as it is, becoming a disturber of the peace in doing so
  • in this debasement and definition of black people, white people debased and defined themselves — quote
  • the lie — what made america truly exceptional
  • the lie is a broad and powerful architecture of false assumptions by which the value gap is maintained
  • according to these lies, black people are essentially inferior, less human than white people and therefore deserving of their particular station in american life
  • according to these lies, america is fundamentally good and innocent and it’s bad deeds dismissed as mistakes corrected on the way to a more perfect union
  • all men are created equal was a lie
  • malformed events to fit the story whenever americas innocence is threatened by reality
  • a mechanism that allows america to avoid facing the truth about its unjust treatment of black people and how it deforms the soul of our country
  • “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”
  • Carmichael (Panther) — calls for revolution and his statements of solidarity with Cuba and Tanzania
  • 1967 — Goldwater said that if Carmichael was found guilty he should be put to death
  • from baldwins point of view, black power was perhaps the only possible, or at least reasonable,. response to the countries unwillingness to give up the lie
  • rage had always put him on edge
  • 1967 — rage was no longer tempered by his faith in the possibility that america could change
  • wrote an essay defending carmichael in 1968
  • witness to the reassertion of the american lie in the face of that movement
  • a critic of the after times — phrase taken from Walt Whitman’s 1871 treatise, Democratic Vistas
  • after times characterize what was before and what is coming into view
  • moment that is desperately trying to be born with a lie wrapped around its neck
  • in the after times, hope is not yet lost — opportunity for a new america
  • we are once again in after times
  • obamas election — if a black man could hold the highest office in the land, then surely we as a country had finally and definitively overcome our racist past (suggested)
  • obama was a beginning, when the lie and it’s consequences might be interrogated
  • in the last years of his presidency we saw a resurgence of interest in baldwins life and work
  • the lie moved quickly to reassert itself — all lives matter, cops, voter ID laws, tea party, MAGA
  • trump is the dominant manifestation of our after times
  • how do we muster the courage to keep fighting in the face of abject moral failure?
  • baldwins’ later writings are saturated with these questions
  • “backlash” — what else does the negro want? term describes a political response to a problem that cuts much deeper than politics, suggesting that white people believe they have gone far enough in addressing black peoples demands
  • deep seated fears emerge over loss of standing and privilege
  • backlash covers in a cloak of innocence white fears and the politics that exploits them
  • white people will have to lose something — fear is at the heart
  • so many americans continue to hold the view that ours is a white nation
  • baldwin saw his role as that of bearing witness
  • never conceded an inch to the lie
  • 1946 — paris gave baldwin the freedom to find or to create a different self
  • growing up black and poor in a society that despised you because you were black
  • stepfather, david baldwin, only father baldwin ever knew, hated white people, terrorized his children, told james he was ugly, eight siblings
  • confrontation between who he was and who he was becoming could not happen on american shores
  • question of who he was was not solved, dragged his problems across the ocean
  • answer was to be found in me — he had the last word about who he was as a human being and a black man
  • socrates called the “examined life” — examine our individual experiences and the terrors that shape how we come to see ourselves
  • reckoning of sorts with the country that made him — never be controlled by them again, didn’t have anything to prove to anyone
  • confront his identity as a black american, nothing to be ashamed of
  • Emerson — “america is a poem in our eyes” and what was needed as a poet to bring that vision to a page
  • america denied the contradiction between its commitments to freedom and democracy and it’s practice of slavery and white supremacy
  • american dilemma: acknowledging the moral efectf of the way of life emptied of genuine meaning because of a lie that dies the things we have done
  • bears witness — to those who cannot because they did not survive, those who survived at all, wounded and broken
  • “my memory stammers, but my soul is a witness”
  • it has never been americas way to confront the trauma directly
  • national rituals of expiation that wash away our guilt without the need for an admission of guilt — MLK Day, example
  • baldwin returned to the US in 1957
  • from the vantage point of 1972, years later, he revealed the damage at the heart of white people who embraced hate and cause the terror (retrospective of the 60's)
  • white southerner had to lie continuously to himself in order to justify his world
  • No Name on the Street — “poverty of spirit”, heroic effort of the civil rights revolution
  • bear witness — to what life is, does, and to speak for people who cannot speak
  • write all about all of that and about what and who was lost
  • shatter the illusion of innocence at every turn
  • exceptionalizing trump deforms our attention, it becomes difficult to see what is happening right in front of us
  • we all must bear witness
  • illusions of substantive change stand alongside the reality of what really happened during the obama years
  • undertow of black politics — traumatic memories that cling to our choices like ghosts who can’t find peace as white america refused to bear witness again
  • 1968 — King found that many who once supported his desegregation efforts in the south were less than enthusiastic about his agenda around jobs and poverty
  • baldwins general sense of an encounter with King, when he introduced him for a speech, was that MLK was skeptical of him, maybe because he was gay?
  • to king, baldwin was just one celebrity among many willing to lend his star power to help the movement
  • King wrestled with the shifts in the political and social climate of the times
  • nation turned its back on his moral vision
  • baldwin had long seen this turn against King on the horizon
  • 1961 — article for harpers magazine, The Dangerous Road Before MLK” — his effectiveness as a leader, complex cross fire
  • King had to confront the radical shift in the movement caused by student sit ins
  • by 1968 king was in a near impossible position, unable to deliver the c change, unwilling to take the more radical measures
  • baldwin knew in 1968 the passage of the civil rights and voting rights acts offered white america the sense of self congratulatory that black power was now denying
  • Du Bois — his life offered both men a blueprint for the longevity of the struggle
  • king was the preacher, baldwin was the poet — Billy Dee Williams remarked that baldwin never got over MLK’s death
  • his death gave baldwin’s voice more of an edge — question of whether or not the country had the courage to confront its deamons
  • all that can save you now is your confrontation with your own history, which is not your past, but your present — quote
  • america is an identity that white people will protect at any cost
  • history we tell ourselves is the key battleground for the country’s future
  • statues were built post civil war, either in the 1890’s and the first decades of the 20th century — monuments to an ideology
  • conscious and deliberate manipulation of history
  • american identity was left safe and secure
  • trump wanted to use the moral failings of the founding fathers to give lee cover
  • taking down statues of lee was somehow a slippery slope that would lead to the unraveling of our basic moral assumptions about american history
  • it’s all about the questions we ask, the questions have changed, the questions always change. that’s why we keep re writing history
  • how, what and who we celebrate reflects what and who we value, how we celebrate our past reflects ultimately who we take ourselves to be today
  • get the facts right!
  • interpretation matters — what we do with the facts, the kinds of questions we ask about them, and for what ends, matter
  • how that past reflects our current commitments and what kind of world that past might commend to us now
  • monuments are memorials to a way of life and a particular set of values associated with that way of life
  • being free to reject the stories, to baldwin, is the precondition to becoming open to accepting them on ones own terms
  • any admissions of such evils in our past is so thoroughly damning that some white people are loath to admit the reality in any form
  • if we don’t rid ourselves of the idea of white america, we seal our fate
  • baldwin wanted to free us from the shackles of a particular national story in order that we might create ourselves anew
  • white america needed to shatter the myths that secured its innocence
  • baldwin’s moral vision requires a confrontation with history
  • Mulford Act — restricted the carrying of loaded firearms in public spaces — drafted in response to the panthers armed community patrols of police in oakland (Reagan governor)
  • Panthers — new militancy that challenged King’s vision of nonviolent resistance
  • assert a vile black manhood
  • panthers believed that black peopole should own and control the vital interests of their communities
  • believed in cross racial coalitions
  • king and baldwin were ruthlessly condemned for standing in the way of revolution
  • moral appeals did little to transform the circumstances of black peoples lives
  • power was at the heart of the matter, power should be pursued
  • by 1967, baldwin was in no mans land
  • policy and power mattered but for baldwin, what kind of human beings we aspired to be mattered more
  • non violent protests had become safe, the litmus test of whether one was a “good negro” or the proverbial “bad nigger”
  • white america’s choice was to remain racist made black power necessary
  • baldwin worried about separation, he knew we would always be american
  • future of black people resided not somewhere else, but here
  • Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone — 1968, some of the worst reviews of his career
  • cricisim was a rejection of baldwins politics as much of his art
  • through the 60’s, focused more directly on the wellbeing and future of black people and away from white america
  • shift happened after kings assasination
  • turns inward and explores what we need to do to secure our freedom because no one is going to do it for us
  • literary gifts had become subordinate to politics
  • later work accounted for drastic shift in the times, not a concession to them
  • white liberals were simply racial philanthropists
  • for many proponenst of black power, baldwin was just another black liberal talking about love while cities burned, a relic of a bygone era obsessed wit hate moral state of white people
  • baldwin’s queerness unsettled MLK
  • hatred and fear of the world as it is overwhelmed the young baldwin
  • answers lay in fully accepting who we are
  • Nobody Knows My Name — one can only face in others what one can face in oneself
  • never rejected the idea that we are much more than the categories that bind our feet
  • white people make black identity politics necessary — if we are to survive, we cannot get trapped there
  • never succumbed to the view that the fact of our blackness determines the substance of who we are
  • didn’t accept the conclusion that white supremacy necessitated we hate white people
  • black people could never overrun this robust idea of our individuality — reach for our better self — when i become a man, i put aside childish things — america had to finally grow up
  • title of an 1891 racist tract by future virgina senator, “the negro problem” was a questions of what was to be done with black people
  • the negro IS the problem — what more does the negro want?
  • the problem was white people for baldwin
  • “some way to make the child who will be despised not despise himself. I don’t know what the negro problem means to white people, but this is what it means to negroes”
  • a problem for black people presented by the problem with white people — consequence of americas problem
  • problem rested at the feet of white america
  • You’re the nigger, baby, it isn’t me
  • shift or invert the “white mans’ burden”
  • we are made the sexualized beasts, we are made niggerss continuously
  • had to help white americans put aside the false image of themselves, had to see how they were, in fact, the niggers
  • 1968 — rage came out in an essay in esquire — black power frightens them. white poets doesn’t frighten them
  • it was and will and always will be a question about who we take ourselves to be
  • hatred corrodes the soul, only love can fortify us against hatred’s temptations
  • insisted we have to tend to ourselves — leave behind the old idea that it is our task to save white people
  • what matters is that categories can shut us off from the complexity of the world and the complexity within ourselves
  • an identity would seem to be arrived at by the way in which a person faces and uses his experiences
  • 1972- No Name in the Street
  • new start — an answer to The Fire Next Time
  • understand the contraditctions of the country
  • no name was the book that announced his survival
  • shifts between the past and the present
  • critics failed to note how No Name sought to make sense of the after times
  • reality of loss — country’s betrayal of the civil rights movement, most important work of social criticism
  • relentless exploration of his own pain, fragility, vulnerability
  • Emerson — “Let me begin anew!”
  • infinite betrayals and consequent traumas
  • our destinies are in our hands, black hands, and no one else’s — quote
  • spent a ton of time in Turkey, where we lived on and off for roughly a decade
  • Istanbul — place to reimagine hope itself, especially after MLK’s death
  • dealt intimately with his grief
  • “to begin again demands a certain silence”
  • was a “transatlantic commuter”
  • allowed him the critical distance from the deadly dynamics of american life
  • “elsewhere” is that physical or metaphorical place that affords the space to breathe
  • “in america, I was free only in battle, never free to rest”
  • istanbul stood as baldwin’s elsewhere
  • in but not of america — black people were in a state of exile
  • the price of being american — the price of the ticket, brutal process of becoming white
  • self creation was a dangerous and radical act for an american, so fixed from birth in this country by the american fantasy of the unfettered individual who was white, decidedly male and heterosexual
  • loneliness inherent in the process required to create oneself apart from the assumptions of who one is supposed to be in america
  • criticized america, out of a passionate love, hoping to make the kingdom new, to make it honorable and worthy of life — quote
  • “united states, one sees it bette from a distance, from another place, from another country”
  • “I leave and i go back, i leave and i go back”
  • trump aims to distract us from distraction by distraction
  • today more than ever, american power follows you everywhere
  • we find our elsewhere in these after times, he would insists
  • elsewhere can and must be found here — in our efforts to refuse to accommodate and adjust to the status quo and cultivate the capacity to say no
  • we have to find and rest in a community of love, has to be genuine
  • actively cultivate communities of love that allow us to imagine different ways of being together
  • critical inventory of who we take ourselves to be and to make a decision to choose life
  • we have to work on ourselves, if we are to live up to the end of world we want to create
  • finding space at the margins of the society helps us see this country more clearly
  • “Hope is invented every day”
  • 1979 — financialization, shareholders, immediate profits, many white americans blamed the troubles on the tumult of the 60's
  • mass incarceration, law and order, conservatism, baldwin became a “despairing witness”
  • by the mid 70’s the heroic and tragic efforts of the black freedom movement to transform the country had fallen apart
  • deep poverty, black underclass, carceral state
  • the soul of america had not been redeemed
  • country remained profoundly racist, white america was perfectly comfortable with that fact
  • “horror is that america, changes all the time without ever changing at all”
  • Regan — lets make america great again
  • dismantling of the so called welfare state, deregulation, privatization, being tough on crime, tax cuts for the wealthy, strong military
  • Regan had a negative reaction to the black freedom movement, he embodied the lie
  • baldwin went back to the south to write a story, perils of the illusion of progress and what it meant for the country at the dawn of the age of Reagan
  • all one had to do was look down from the street signs for MLK ave and see poor neighborhoods along it to get the point
  • when martins head was blown off we learned something — quote
  • Reagan — states rights, to restore to states and local governments the power that properly belongs to them
  • Reagan’s was genteel racism — 1966, in his race for CA, he denounced open housing and civil rights laws
  • in 1976, he started the “welfare queen” term
  • the soil in which Trumpism grows
  • for black america, Reagan triggered traumas
  • “his contempt, his brutal contempt, for poor people”
  • argued that americans could escape poor living conditions if they so chose “vote with their feet”
  • they could just move along, those who remained did so because they wanted to or were too lazy to aspire to something more
  • voting, for black people, can also be a means to buy some time (author)
  • Trump is a clear reflection of who we are, with him white america reached for an image on which to project their hatreds and fears
  • in this sense, trump is best seen as a child of reagan
  • part of this democratic experiment since the very beginning: we must keep the proverbial niggers and those like them in their place. and it worked
  • some people matter more than others and with a society organized to reflect that belief
  • not to see yourself in trump is to continue to lie
  • we need to look inward, trump is us, or better yet, Trump is YOU
  • we must cling to hope, hope drenched in blood and disappointment
  • Dubois described it as “a hope not hopeless but unhopeful”
  • sine 1980, 500% increase in prisons, 67% people of color
  • one of the Johnson administrations last pieces of legislation was Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 — response to white fear over the perceived threat of black violence — established Law Enforcement Assistance Administration which provided local police departments supporting the form of weapons, surveillance and research about criminality
  • increased militarization of police
  • Maya Angelou “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unloved, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again”
  • King: “It is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps”
  • you can’t have reconciliation without the truth
  • confederrate monuments, with their explicit claims to superiority by white people
  • re examine the fundamental values and commitments that shape our self understanding
  • see where we went wrong and how we might reimagine or recreate ourselves in light of who we initially set out to be
  • Trump is us, just as surely as the slave owning founding fathers were us
  • country’s self congratulatory came with the expectation of black gratitude (progress on race)
  • after times require that we look back in the order to understand the choices that we’ve made that have brought us to the moment of crisis
  • because to become white meant the subjugation of others
  • baldwin came to see the early history of america as the site of our fall
  • what is happening today isn’t unprecedented, it is uniquely of our times
  • Civil war amendments — they aimed to begin again, but the country turned it’s back
  • those who refuse to remember become moral monsters
  • need an america where becoming white is no longer the price of the ticket
  • recognition of our sins
  • confront our national trauma
  • Beckett: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
  • statues do not represent who we are and who we aspire to be
  • HR 40 commission — study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations
  • end policies that breathe life into the lie
  • baldwin called for the new jerusalem — all human life is sacred
  • keep working to build a better world where the color of one’s skin matters little in the quality of life one chooses to live
  • whiteness as an identity was a moral choice, an attitude towards the world based on ugly things
  • some early slaves used christianity, broke free from the world as it was, because they imagined the world as it could be
  • baldwin didn’t stick his head in the sand, ran towards the trouble
  • facing it honestly was our only possible path to salvation, “if you’re scared to death, walk toward it”
  • we are at once miracles and disasters
  • imagine ourselves without the need for enemies
  • we should not chose safety, again
  • love remains the one force that transcends the differences that get in the way of our genuinely living together
  • “no salvation without love, salvation does not divide, salvation connects”
  • we cannot shrink from our rage — it is the fire that lights the kiln

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Adam Marks

Adam Marks

I love books, I have a ton of them, and I take notes on all of them. I wanted to share all that I have learned and will continue to learn. I hope you enjoy.