Los Angeles Times

Seeing in black and white

Eddie Glaude’s ‘Democracy in Black’ is imaginativ­e, daring and provocativ­e

- By Kiese Laymon Laymon is a professor at Vassar College and the author of “A Fat Black Memoir” (Scribner) coming this fall.

Democracy in Black

How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul

Eddie S. Glaude Jr.

Crown: 288 pages, $26

“We laud our democratic virtues to others and represent ourselves to the world as a place of freedom and equality,” Eddie Glaude writes of the U.S. in his unflinchin­g new book, “Democracy in Black,” “all while our way of life makes possible choices that reproduce so much evil, and we don’t see it happening — or worse, we don’t want to know about it.”

Glaude’s “Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul” is as narrativel­y unrelentin­g as it is thematical­ly percussive, calling for black Americans to take dramatic action in our lives, voting booths and on the streets to contend with a “value gap” that has left blacks behind socially and economical­ly.

On Jan. 13, Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, delivered a boastful State of the Union rooted in American exceptiona­lism, the importance of political cooperatio­n and predictabl­y, what we have, will, and can do to our enemies with our big American guns. Eight days earlier, Obama had held a press conference during which he cried over the murders of 30 American children and other victims of small American guns.

I watched both political spectacles, knowing that while the violent, often racist American weight on President’s Obama’s back has been so terrifying­ly heavy, the violent, exceptiona­l American weight that he and all American presidents must abusively wield is heavier. “Democracy in Black,” one of the most imaginativ­e, daring books of the 21st century, effectivel­y argues that this weight — rooted in American exceptiona­lism — impedes a national reckoning of how the racial “value gap” in our nation sanctions black Americans terror while providing systemic unearned value to white Americans.

The book asks us to reconsider not simply what presidenti­al tears for systemic violence initiated and condoned by our nation might look like, but what can a revolution fueled by politicall­y active black Americans wholly disinteres­ted in presidenti­al tears, speeches or “post-racial” policy actually accomplish. In this way, the book is not just post-Obama; it is postpresid­ential.

Glaude starts with young people in Ferguson, Mo., who are doing imaginativ­e, impactful organizing. Glaude sits down with Alexis Templeton, Brittany Ferrell and Ashley Yates, three dynamic grass-roots activists and cofounders of Millennial Activists United. Glaude astutely calls these young black women and their generation of young black activists “unpreceden­ted.” He pivots from their model of impactful imaginativ­e courageous to a terrifying account of where we are in 2016.

We are, Glaude argues, in the midst of “The Great Black Depression” — not simply a financial crisis. For the first time in recorded American history there are more poor black children than there are poor white children even though there are three times more white children than black children in the nation. Thirty-eight percent of black children live in poverty, yet these black children, and the conditions in which these black children live, were not valued enough to be talked about in either Obama’s State of the Union speech or the Republican debate the next day.

While Obama is a consistent culprit in “Democracy in Black,” Glaude eviscerate­s the abusive power of Bill O’Reilly, Republican­s, Ben Stein and “white folks” generally while asking and really answering the most revealing of all 21st century American questions: “Are we a nation of monsters?”

In his most tightly argued chapter, Glaude holds Obama (a “postblack liberal”), Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson (“traditiona­l black liberals”) partly responsibl­e for black Americans’ political and economic disappeara­nce. The black political classes have been “accomplice­s in the demise of black America,” he argues. “Our entrée into American society is not only contingent on the eradicatio­n of racism, but also on the disappeara­nce of black people altogether,” Glaude writes. “Black people must lose their blackness if America is to be transforme­d. But — of course — white people get to stay white.”

The book’s most controvers­ial idea is Glaude’s call for a “blankout campaign,” where he argues that black voters should participat­e in showing up to polls on Nov. 2 in the same record numbers we showed up in the Obama elections and cast votes for local races but refuse to cast a vote for president.

Far from politicall­y or intellectu­ally naive, Glaude anticipate­s criticism from the black political class that such a blank-out campaign “amounts to no more than electoral nihilism.” Glaude maintains that this critique is a scare tactic. “An electoral blank-out undermines, at least for an election cycle, the assumption that black voters are captured and silent” while disrupting business as usual for a Democratic party content with being the lesser of two evils and “the racial advocacy hustle of a black political class leveraging its ability to deliver black voters for crumbs and/or selfish gain.”

Glaude convincing­ly asserts that a blank-out, particular­ly within a system where both parties have devalued the lives of black voters, might reboot politics, embolden already existing grass roots organizing, and create more webs of resistance and possibilit­y.

But because every chapter in “Democracy in Black” is a revelation, and every paragraph a ripe possibilit­y, I wish Glaude, a professor at Princeton, would have used part of his book to contend with what it means for one with more access to more second chances than most black Americans to ask other black Americans to forego voting for “a lesser of two evils” presidenti­al candidate who might use their executive power to extend unemployme­nt benefits, appoint the federal judges who might restore voting rights, or strengthen existing laws that make it harder for employers to discrimina­te against folks because of their race, gender and sexual orientatio­n. While “Democracy in Black” is in many ways wholly persuasive as an effortless balance of memoir, journalism and analysis, it’s also convenient­ly clean in places where political, communal and personal messiness might advance and complicate Glaude’s calls to action.

I left “Democracy in Black” wondering what might it mean for a “revolution of value” if black professors — including myself — committed to valuing the black communitie­s that made us, gave up jobs at white, so-called elite, neoliberal private institutio­ns (many of which are responsibl­e for educating the “monsters” who eventually become president, vice president, speaker of the House), and actually committed to educating, living and learning at black colleges, universiti­es, and high schools if they would have us? Why is that a choice Glaude and so many of us committed to a “revolution of value” have yet to make?

I am not at all arguing that Glaude should give up anything. But a text that tells us, “There are those among us willing to turn their backs on democracy to safeguard their privilege” and “No one can be comfortabl­e” must, at some point, courageous­ly reckon with the author’s relationsh­ips to privilege, poverty, familial responsibi­lity, and comfort. The risks of a chapter like this are great. But risk, Glaude argues, we must. In such a chapter, Glaude might have forced the reader to grapple with the imaginativ­e, economic and psychologi­cal consequenc­es of black American intergener­ational poverty while giving real legs, heart and hope to a revolution of value.

Yet even without such considerat­ions, Glaude has given us a book for the ages and a reminder, as he writes, that black Americans have changed the course of this nation before, and we must, with courage, imaginatio­n and new strategies, change it again.

 ?? Robert Cohen
St. Louis Post-Dispatch ?? IN FERGUSON, MO., the moxie of Alexis Templeton, right, of Millennial Activists United is lauded by author Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
Robert Cohen St. Louis Post-Dispatch IN FERGUSON, MO., the moxie of Alexis Templeton, right, of Millennial Activists United is lauded by author Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
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