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

This was a really difficult but important read. Glaude is a pretty well-known and prominent professor at Princeton, I believe, and this book is his ode to James Baldwin, who he readily admits is one of his hero’s and a bit of an obsession over the years. Baldwin was a tortured soul who’s life mission was to “bear witness” to the world and experiences of the Black race so that he could contemplate and express what was truly happening for people to see, hear and understand. Glaude examines Baldwin’s complicated life and reflects on the lessons learned — lessons that are even more relevant in this day and age amidst our latest racial reckoning. Baldwin’s message — that we must reckon with and understand our past or we cannot possibly move forward in the future — is more prescient than ever, and Glaude makes the case that we cannot forget Baldwin’s teachings or we will be trapped in this perpetual cycle of racial un-harmony, again and again.

  • 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

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.

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