‘Begin Again’ calls on Baldwin to make sense of today
It’s hard enough to think back four months, much less four years, but try to recall the early weeks of 2016 – another time, another planet.
Eddie S. Glaude Jr., a professor of African American studies at Princeton, had just published “Democracy in Black,” his blistering indictment of the Obama era. Under the watch of the first Black president, Glaude wrote, “black people have suffered tremendously.” A Democratic machine that took Black voters for granted had convinced Glaude that the only way forward would be an “electoral blank-out.” He called on Black Americans to turn out in record numbers again in November 2016 and cast a vote for “none of the above.”
This, mind you, preceded Donald Trump plowing through the primaries to become the Republican nominee. For Glaude, a Trump presidency was completely unfathomable until it actually happened. “White America would never elect such a person to the highest office in the land,” he writes in his new book, “Begin Again: James
Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own,” recalling what he told himself in 2016. “I was wrong, and given my lifelong reading of Baldwin, it was an egregious mistake.”
Over the last several years there’s been a popular resurgence of interest in Baldwin’s work. Baldwin’s example took on renewed relevance toward the end of the Obama presidency, as soaring hopes collided with an enduring reality of police violence and mass incarceration. Writers found in Baldwin a mix of rigor and freedom: Here was an unsparing diagnostician who nevertheless embraced contradictions.
Glaude is more explicit about looking to Baldwin not just for perspective and inspiration but for instruction and guidance: Combining elements of biography, criticism and memoir, “Begin Again” “aims to think with Baldwin and to interrogate how an insidious view of race, in the form of Trumpism, continues to frustrate any effort to ‘achieve our country.’”
Glaude considers Trumpism only “the latest betrayal,” the revival of something old and ugly in American politics. He repeatedly invokes what he calls Baldwin’s “nuance and complexity,” but in a state of emergency he concedes that a hardnosed approach to the election is a necessary first step.
The idea isn’t to return the country to what it was before President Trump; Glaude wants a wholesale reenvisioning, not a complacent restoration. As Baldwin put it in 1980, before Ronald Reagan won the presidential election, explaining the decision to vote for a disappointing Jimmy Carter: “It will be a coldly calculated risk, a means of buying time.”
By Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Crown, 239 pages, $27. Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own