Tuesday, December 17, 2019

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

At the center of every galaxy there is a black hole, destroying everything that happens by. For Eddie Glaude, at the center of the mythical America is “the lie” and it taints everyone and everything about the place. In Begin Again, he explores the lie through the thoughts of author James Baldwin, as keen an observer and interpreter of what amounts to the lie as anyone ever has been.

The book is a topline history of 20th century racism, as lived through the pen of James Baldwin. Baldwin’s attitudes and positions evolved as he endured the stubbornness of white intransigence and its (at best) willful blindness to racism. Not much better were the largely ineffective solutions of black motivators, from Martin Luther King to Malcolm X to Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver (all of whom Baldwin was close to and supported). The problem refused to evolve, let alone resolve. Only the perceptions mutated. And that remains criminally insufficient, 250 years after the founding.

Glaude shows himself as an intense student of Baldwin. Nuances mere readers would never notice are magnified in Glaude’s telling and analysis. The bitterness, confusion, frustration and depression shine beyond the mere words on the page or the in the many interviews Baldwin gave (He tried to commit suicide – twice). This interpretation frames the discussion. It makes the book much more than a more-of-the-same diatribe on discrimination.

For Baldwin, the lie was the original white settlers being able to distinguish what was a man. They knew a man when they saw one. If a man wasn’t a man, there was no harm in dealing with him as subhuman, he said. That’s the story of America. Today, as Glaude explains it, blacks see themselves “in but not of, this country.” They continue to battle, because they have to.

Baldwin, of course, left. He couldn’t stand it. It clouded his intellect. He wrote in Paris and in Istanbul. When he came back, nothing had really changed, except the players. Friends like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King had been murdered, and attitudes had hardly budged. He said “The horror is that America changes all the time, without ever changing at all.”

Today, the examination has become microscopic, sweeping everyone and everything in its path. For Glaude: “He (Baldwin) exposes your private lies and forces you, because of his own relentless commitment to the examined life, to confront your deepest wounds as a precondition to saying anything about the world.” That’s the level of intensity throughout the book. It is not about “saving” Trump voters, Glaude says. It’s much deeper than that and applies to everyone.

Glaude gets caught in the silliness of Confederate statuary, examining the value of various celebrities of the era and whether or not statues should be allowed outside museum displays. I for one cannot understand why there is even an argument. Normally, when someone wins a war, first thing they do is tear down the flag and then prevent hero worship of the old regime. The flag goes away forever. From all appearances in the USA, the South won the war. The proud evidence is everywhere.

There should simply be no sign of the vanquished state at all, and the federal government needs to address this absurdity, before more books get published examining the pros and cons. But I, like Glaude, digress.

America is actually more liberal than its lawmakers, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out numerous times over the decades of my life. Suddenly, and without a catalyst, the death penalty was on its way out, nationwide. Gays became tolerable, and the general will soon evolved for them to marry openly. Marijuana became acceptable almost overnight, and there is widespread feeling it should be totally decriminalized. What’s next, we should all hope, is for white supremacy to become intolerable. In the book, Glaude calls for nationwide discussion of reparations. Perhaps that level of consciousness-raising might start the ball rolling. We should give it a shot, because this can’t just keep going on forever.

This is about the 30th book on racism I have reviewed. I put their unique points in a chapter on racism in my book The Straight Dope. So this is familiar, if not fertile terrain. But Begin Again is more intense and inward-looking. As I read Glaude’s words and watched his emotions unfold, a single thought kept intruding. It is a shame that black Americans have to devote so much of their consciousness and their very lives to defining, defending and destroying the lie. What a waste. It’s a little sickening to think how much farther ahead the whole country could be if they were free to apply their intellects and talents elsewhere instead. In the meantime, Glaude, like Baldwin before him, remains optimistic for humanity to overcome stupidity.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.