The ‘white problem’ ... Baldwin’s writings spark a timely and absorbing engagement with American history
In 2018, two years after the “disastrous” 2016 US presidential election, Eddie Glaude Jr, professor of African American Studies at Princeton, made a pilgrimage to the house in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, in the south of France, where James Baldwin had lived for almost two decades, and which was now being knocked down to make way for luxury flats. Glaude, who has taught Baldwin for many years, had come in search of any surviving traces of the writer’s refuge, and found most of it crumbling to dust. Only the writing room remained, “exposed for the sun to beat down on its side”. Against the backdrop of bulldozers and the noise of sledgehammers, it “looked like the excavation of an ancient ruin”, and called to mind “what Baldwin saw in the latter part of his life in the United States … decay and wreckage alongside greed and selfishness”. It became the impetus for Glaude to undertake an excavation of his own.
He resolved to engage deeply with Baldwin’s work, to try to think “with” him, in order to interrogate “how an insidious view of race, in the form of Trumpism, continues to frustrate any effort to ‘achieve our country’”, and then to write about it. The result is Begin Again, a book that is perfect for Baldwin aficionados or anyone experiencing staggering disbelief at America’s state of disarray and trying to make sense of it. What sets this account apart is that Glaude understands how Baldwin’s writing becomes a pathway for one’s own thoughts; he’s able to synthesises the novelist’s work in a way that transcends summation or homage and becomes instead an act of breathtaking literary assimilation that acquires its own generative power.
Early on, he quotes Baldwin’s 1963 speech at Howard University: “It is the responsibility of the Negro writer to excavate the real history of this country … We must tell the truth till we can no longer bear it.” Baldwin took his own exhortation seriously, producing, according to Glaude, nearly 7,000 pages of writing distinguished by its astute, unflinching elegance, including Notes of a Native Son (1955) and The Fire Next Time (1963) – which established him as the literary consciousness of the African American resistance at a critical moment in the country’s history. Glaude tracks an argument that originates in Baldwin’s 1964 essay “The White Problem”: “The idea of America is an outright lie” that has fostered a state of wilful blindness, involving not only a refusal to acknowledge that the US was founded on notions of white supremacy, but an interrelated insistence on the innocence of white Americans.
Merging his own thoughts with Baldwin’s, Glaude posits that the reason for America’s troubles since the arrival of the first group of enslaved Africans has been its unwillingness to confront this lie: “any attempt” to do so “would be sabotaged by the fear that we may not be who we say we are”. Instead of facing the truth about the genocidal horrors of its past, Americans pine for “national rituals of expiation”. Thus, in the wake of any attempt to expose it, the lie always moves “quickly to reassert itself”, prolonging a long practice of historical gaslighting.
For Glaude, two previous turning points in American history – first, the civil war and reconstruction, and second, the black freedom struggle of the mid 20th century, both attempted to grapple with the lie, and were the occasions of “betrayal”. Barack Obama’s election to the presidency represented another turning point, but hopes were “betrayed”, just as the civil rights movement was betrayed by the turn towards Reaganism. Now, the US faces another “moment of moral reckoning”, the chance to “choose whether it will become a genuinely multiracial democracy”, and Glaude suggests it should look to Baldwin’s “navigation of his own disappointments” for guidance.
He traces how the brutal response to the freedom struggle – in particular the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr – led to a shift in Baldwin’s thinking, a recognition of the need to eschew “the burden of having to save white people first”. Glaude concludes that the answer now is the same as it was then: the urgent need to “rid ourselves of the idea of white America”, which is the only way to get off the “goddam racial hamster wheel”. And he suggests that the first step involves what he called in his previous book Democracy in Black a “revolution of value”: “This involves telling ourselves the truth about what we have done … It requires centering a set of values that holds every human being sacred.”
In form, Begin Again is an essayistic marvel, circling and folding back on itself as Baldwin’s musings in the past and Glaude’s analysis of the present give meaning to each other. For example, Baldwin’s understanding that we had to get “beyond” colour (misread by some as “boot-licking” self-hatred) leads to a discourse on modern identity politics through his contention that “categories can cut us off from the complexity of the world, and the complexity of ourselves”, before coming back to the idea that we must tell the truth about who we are. Glaude’s style works the same way Baldwin’s did, achieving the kind of mimetic evocation of a mind at work that Montaigne described as “la peinture de la pensée” (the painting of thought), except that here we get two great minds for the price of one.
In the US, the book was published in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. In the UK, it was released just after armed pro-Trump rioters staged the attack on the US Capitol, in the wake of which “the lie” was still everywhere in evidence, particularly the loud condemnatory chorus crying out: “This is not who we are! This is not America!” It’s a persistent, predictable refrain, but as always it only raises the question: if it isn’t America, why does it keep happening there? Glaude’s attempt to answer this, via Baldwin, points to a way for his country to “imagine ourselves anew”. It is a scholarly, deeply personal, and yet immensely readable meditation, a masterful reckoning with the “latest betrayal” of the American ideal.
[Originally published on February 18, 2021 via The Guardian]