Amid a nationwide reckoning with systemic racism, we speak with Princeton African American studies professor Eddie Glaude, whose new book on James Baldwin offers lessons from the iconic writer for the present. Baldwin, says Glaude, insisted that “we put aside the myths and illusions and understand what white supremacy has done in terms of disfiguring and distorting the character of this nation.” The book is titled “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, The Quarantine Report. We’re speaking with professor Eddie Glaude, chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University, his new book, just out, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. This is James Baldwin speaking in 1963 about federally backed urban renewal programs.
JAMES BALDWIN: A boy last week — he was 16 — in San Francisco, told me, on television — thank God we got him to talk. Maybe somebody will start to listen. He said, “I’ve got no country, I’ve got no flag.” And he’s only 16 years old. And I couldn’t say, “You do.” I don’t have any evidence to prove that he does. They were tearing down his house, because San Francisco is engaging, as most Northern cities now are engaged, in something called urban renewal, which means moving the Negroes out. It means Negro removal. That is what it means. And the federal government is an accomplice to this fact. Now, this — we’re talking about human beings. There’s not such a thing as a monolithic wall or, you know, some abstraction called the Negro problem. These are Negro boys and girls, who, at 16 and 17, don’t believe the country means anything that it says, and don’t feel they have any place here, on the basis of the performance of the entire country.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s James Baldwin in 1963. 1963 was also the year, as I said, of the Birmingham church bombing, four little girls killed, James Baldwin giving fiery addresses about what this meant. He would eventually leave the United States. Professor Eddie Glaude, he has been the backdrop of your life. Talk about what he represented then and what it means for today.
EDDIE GLAUDE: Well, you know, I’ve been thinking and thinking about James Baldwin for about 30 years. He’s been in my spirit, in my head, the foundation of my scholarly career, in some ways. And what I wanted to do was to think about him as this poet who spoke the truth to our times.
And, you know, Amy, he had to come to terms with the fact that the country turned its back on the Black freedom struggle. He had to come to terms with the fact that the nation, in effect, assassinated Dr. King. And he collapsed after 1968, and he had to pick up the pieces.
So what I wanted to do was to walk with James Baldwin as he, in some ways, grappled with his moment of betrayal, and find the resources for us in our moment, as we’re grappling with our own moment of betrayal. And what I’ve learned is that he spoke truth. He spoke truth. He insisted that the nation confront the lie, the illusions that protect its so-called innocence. And that became the basis of writing this book in this moment in which Trumpism overdetermines so much of our lives.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did he have to — why did he leave America? Talk about that. And also, what does he teach us about today, in this election that — we just spoke to Noam Chomsky. He says it’s the most important election in human history right now, here in the United States, in the most powerful country in the world.
EDDIE GLAUDE: Right. So, he left the U.S. in 1948, because he had to get away. He said the hatred was taking root in him, and either he was going to kill somebody or he was going to be killed. And so he left Harlem and went to Paris. And there, he engaged in this extraordinary act of self-creation, where he willed himself into being a writer. But he had to do it outside of the country so he could at least breathe, so he could find the space to imagine himself otherwise, to deal with what was deposited in his gut.
And it’s precisely, I think, the Baldwin as witness, Baldwin as someone who tried to make real the suffering, that is the lesson we need to learn today. He insisted, Amy, that we tell the truth about who we are and what we’ve done, that we put aside the myths and illusions and understand what white supremacy has done in terms of disfiguring and distorting the character of this nation.
In this moment, we have the forces of authoritarianism clashing with the forces of democracy. In this moment, we have the nation trying to confront what will it be. And the question is: Will it double down on its ugliness? Will white folks simply double down on being white folk again? And do we have to deal with another generation, my son and his children, having to deal with the implication and the consequence of that dastardly and ghastly decision to be white?
AMY GOODMAN: So, you call the book Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. Take it forward to now.
EDDIE GLAUDE: Well, I get the title from his last novel, Just Above My Head. And I paraphrase here: He says, “When the dream was shattered, people scattered. Some lost their minds, some went to jail, some left the country. But we know what we did.” And he says, “Responsibility isn’t lost. Responsibility is abdicated. And if one refuses abdication, then one begins again.” And at the end of his 1972 important book No Name in the Street, he likens us to midwives trying to give birth to a new America. And every time, Amy, every time we are at this moment where we can give birth to a different way of being in this country, a different multiracial America, the umbilical cord of white supremacy is wrapped around the baby’s neck, and it chokes the life out of it.
So, here we are in this moment once again. Our responsibility, if we don’t abdicate it, is to try to give birth to a genuinely multiracial democracy. I think if we fail this time, I’m not so sure the country will survive. But that’s what’s in our hands in this moment — in nobody else’s hands, it’s in ours.
AMY GOODMAN: Also, his bravery in speaking out as a Black queer man in America, and then leaving this country?
EDDIE GLAUDE: Yeah, yeah. I interviewed Angela Davis right here in Princeton, and she said, “In so many ways, he was alone.” You know, when he wrote Giovanni’s Room, he said, “You couldn’t hold my sexuality over me. I told you.” And the courage of this vulnerable, frail man to speak truth to power, no matter the consequences, right? And I think he, in some ways, is an exemplar for us: What does it mean to hold true and steadfast to our convictions and not take the bribe? Because when James Baldwin understood, when he embraced those young people who cried “Black power,” he understood the cost. He knew what would happen to his career. And so, the book, Amy, focuses on the latter part of James Baldwin’s career, not the early part. And I think we need to understand the cost and be willing to take the risks.
AMY GOODMAN: About those risks and what this election means right now, your assessment of President Trump?
EDDIE GLAUDE: Oh, he’s a disaster. You know, I was on your show debating Michael Eric Dyson, if you recall, about the 2016 election. And I said I wouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton. And, you know, I was thinking about this, and, you know, in some ways, I overestimated white America. I didn’t think they would elect someone who was so clearly unqualified to be the leader of the country. But the mandate of Donald Trump is clear: line the pockets of the oligarchs and make America white again.
So we have to do two things in this moment. We have to get him out of office, and we have to push a vision for a complete reimagining of American life. We have to put forward a radical vision of this country, something like what Nikkita Oliver put forward in the last segment. We have to do both things simultaneously; it’s not an either/or. So, I learned my lesson. Sometimes, as Jimmy Baldwin said in 1979 when faced with the election of Ronald Reagan and perhaps the first neoliberal president in the United States, Jimmy Carter, he said, “Sometimes voting for Black America is just simply a matter of buying some time.” We need to understand our choices, but we need to get Donald Trump out of office, and we need to put forward a radical vision of America moving forward.
AMY GOODMAN: And President Trump hanging now onto these toppled Confederate generals, the significance of this, moving in federal troops to American cities, and doing this all during the time of COVID, which disproportionately affects communities of color?
EDDIE GLAUDE: You know, we’ve been risking our lives ever since folk brought us here. And so, we see folks risking their lives in the midst of this global pandemic to call attention to what police are doing to us daily.
Donald Trump is in the midst of reasserting the lie. At every moment, at every time in which the nation faces a kind of moral reckoning, there is a reassertion of the lie. And that lie is the belief that America is the shining city on the hill. That lie is the belief that Black folk don’t really have the capacity to really take on the real, serious burdens of citizenship. That lie is rooted, Amy, in this idea that racial justice is a philanthropic enterprise. Right?
And so, what we’re seeing in this moment is not only the energy of —
AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.
EDDIE GLAUDE: — everyday, ordinary people. We see, clearly, Donald Trump trying to reassert the lie that America is a white nation in the vein of Old Europe.
AMY GOODMAN: Princeton University professor Eddie Glaude. His new book is Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.
That does it for our broadcast. Stay safe. Save lives. Wear a mask.