James Baldwin's Faith in America

Written by
Sean Illing, Vox
Aug. 12, 2020

If I could bring back from the dead any American writer and ask them to describe the country they see today, it would be James Baldwin, the great 20th-century essayist and novelist.

I don’t know what the Black experience is like in America, but I can say that no writer made it as visceral or vivid for me as Baldwin. He had a rare combination of raw literary talent and intellectual honesty that made him uniquely equipped to communicate an alien reality to someone like me, a white kid growing up in the South.

As it happens, Baldwin, who would have turned 96 this Sunday, has been in the news these past few years. The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has invoked him as a model; he was the subject of a widely praised 2017 documentary; and his novel If Beale Street Could Talk was adapted into a feature film in 2018.

Obviously, no one is raising Baldwin from the dead, but we now have maybe the next best thing: a book about Baldwin from Princeton African American studies professor Eddie Glaude Jr. It’s called Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own and the book is part memoir, part biography, and part political essay. It’s Glaude’s attempt to process what’s happening right now through Baldwin’s eyes.

I reached out to Glaude to talk about Baldwin’s conception of America and how it can speak to this moment. This is a long and honest discussion about the contradictions of the American project and why racial progress is both real and illusory at the same time. It is also, I hope, a clarifying exchange on the moral dilemmas at the heart of this challenge. There are no easy answers in any of this, but, in a strange way, the unanswerability of the questions is a reminder that we’re all figuring out how to navigate this moment together.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing: What was Baldwin’s greatest insight into this country? What did he see more clearly than anyone else?

Eddie Glaude Jr.: I’ve never been asked that question before. The easy answer is that he saw that America was constantly telling itself lies. It refused to look itself squarely in the face. In some ways, America had refused to face its fears, refused to look at its own self-conception.

Baldwin said that Black people are the rejected sons and daughters of America. He put it this way once, and I’m paraphrasing here: There’s a level of barbarity and psychological fracture when you’re selling your own child. You know that’s your child on the auction block. For Baldwin, that takes us to a deep level of neurosis, of psychosis at the heart of the country that requires exploring. So I think his insight was in recognizing this psychological wound that’s at the heart of the American project.

Sean: What were the lies he thought America kept telling itself?

Eddie: In 1964, Baldwin wrote an essay entitled “The White Problem.” He has this formulation that says, “The people who settled the country had a fatal flaw. They could recognize a man when they saw one. They knew he wasn’t anything else but a man, but since they were Christian and since they had already decided that they came here to establish a free country, the only way to justify the role this chattel was playing in one’s life was to say that he was not a man. But if he wasn’t, then no crime had been committed. That lie is the basis of our present trouble.”

So this idea of dehumanization is at the heart of this capitalist enterprise called slavery. Then built around it is this elaborate discourse that accounts for my intelligence, my passions, and my capabilities. And then we tell stories about what we have done not only to these people but to other people around the world that protect our innocence. Then we distort anything that threatens to reveal the lie of our innocence.

So this is at the heart of this self-conception of the United States as the redeeming nation.


Sean: There’s so much going on there and we’ll get to it, but I want to weave in what you think as we work through what Baldwin thought. So let me ask you this: When you look at this moment we’re in, and I mean the whole damn thing — the pandemic, the racial reckoning, the economic crisis — what stands out to you the most? What’s the unifying thread tying all of this unrest together?

Eddie: The country is broken. It’s built on a bankrupt ideology. There’s a reason why we’re not responding to the pandemic in a certain sort of way, because we’ve lived for over 40 to 50 years with an ideology that has said that big government is bad, that any sane intervention in the economy is an intrusion on our liberty. So that’s the first thing.

Ever since 9/11, there’s only been a certain portion of the country bearing the sacrifice for what we’ve experienced, for the forever wars. All of us aren’t asked to sacrifice. Even when it comes to wearing a mask, we’re too selfish. We invoke liberty as a defense instead of acting responsibly on behalf of one’s fellows. It’s a broken culture and a broken ideology.

Sean: When Trump started campaigning in 2015, my biggest worry is that he would uncork resentments that had been festering beneath the surface for decades. On the one hand, maybe it’s necessary to bring these deep problems into the light in order to deal with them; on the other hand, it feels like the norms and constraints holding this experiment together have cracked apart.

I’m curious how you think about this paradox.

Eddie: First off, I think that’s absolutely right. The post-civil rights consensus has been broken, just like the post-World War II consensus about global governance has been broken. Part of what the post-civil rights consensus entailed was that you could racially dog-whistle. You could mobilize racial resentments for political ends, but you couldn’t do it in such a way that would spark full-blown racial wars. The cultural wars involved, in part, appealing to these resentments.

[This has been] the undertow of American politics, from Reagan’s run in ’80 to George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ads and right on down the line. Race has been mobilizing white resentments for a long while. Trump has put aside the dog whistle and grabbed a foghorn. So he appeals to them explicitly, and he’s brought those people who were initially banished to the margins of our body politic into the center of politics.

Begin Again

Sean: Baldwin fell into despair, especially after MLK’s assassination, but he never completely lost faith in his home country, right? He still believed a moment of true freedom was possible, what he called the New Jerusalem.

Eddie: Yeah, but I don’t think he was ever optimistic. He might’ve been hopeful, but not optimistic. But even that hope was blue-soaked. He was never naive about the capacities of white folk in this country. Jimmy makes a crucial distinction between white people and people who happen to be white.

Sean: What’s the difference?

Eddie: A white person is someone who’s invested in the value gap and is fine with how advantage and disadvantage is distributed along those lines. So a world that values white people more than others is a world that invests in that particular identity and the way in which the world is organized and arranged.

Someone who happens to be white is someone who is not invested in that, but understands how the language of whiteness comes to them as natural as the love of their mother.

This is what the writer Wendell Berry talks about in The Hidden Wound. He’s Kentucky-born. He knows that racism comes to him like language. But just the fact that he knows it and that he’s engaged in the ongoing work of trying to deconstruct it and deconstruct the world that has been organized in light of it says that he’s that dude. So the difference is whether you’re someone who’s invested in an identity of whiteness or someone who understands the dynamics of that identity and is trying to build a more just world in spite of it.

Sean: Baldwin eventually concluded, for reasons you just hinted at, that “white Americans had to save themselves.” What did he mean by that?

Eddie: Baldwin’s revolutionary inversion is to flip the white man’s burden. The white man’s burden becomes the Black man’s burden. That’s when he says, “I’m not the N-word. Never have been.” The question is, why did you need to invent the N-word? Once you understand why, then maybe we can get off this damn hamster wheel. He didn’t say it that way, but you get what I mean. The point is that, “I’m not the N-word. You invented the N-word. We need to figure out why you invented the N-word. Until we do that, I’m going to give that N-word back to you. You must be the N-word.” That’s the revolutionary move.

In the early stages, the second move was to say, “Well, since that’s the case, we got to help them understand themselves differently. We have to love them into viewing themselves otherwise,” because otherwise we bear the brunt of this way of understanding themselves. But by the time MLK is assassinated, that feeling is gone.

Then the question is, we only have a finite amount of civic energy, so do we use that energy trying to convince people who hold noxious views about race not to hold them? Or do we spend our energy trying to build a world where those views have no quarter to breathe? It’s the latter that I think he’s invested in. We can still build a New Jerusalem. We can still do the work of trying to build a more just world. But that’s not going to involve me having to compromise with these folk, and I don’t want to do that anymore. Because every time we compromise, somebody, namely us, we have to bear the brunt of the compromise.

Sean: The move you make in the book, and the move Baldwin eventually makes, is that there’s an idea of America defined by whiteness that simply isn’t salvageable and we’ve got to get clear about that before we can do anything else.

Eddie: Yes! I say that the idea of white America is irredeemable, but that doesn’t mean that we are. There’s nothing about the idea of an America that is defined by whiteness that we can salvage.

In the book, I’m trying to sever this idea of American identity from this idea of whiteness. Because they’re so intrinsically linked, when we tell the truth about the country, people think everything is going to collapse — that we’re no longer distinctive in some sort of way if we don’t tell the story in the way in which we’ve told it. I think Jimmy is trying to insist that by confronting our ghastly failures, we can be otherwise. There’s this wonderful line he said in 1962: “We are in deeper trouble than we think: The trouble is in us.”

The author James Baldwin smiles while addressing the crowd from the speaker’s platform, after participating in the march from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights, Alabama, March 1965.

<p>The author James Baldwin smiles while addressing the crowd from the speaker’s platform, after participating in the march from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights, Alabama, March 1965.&nbsp;|&nbsp;<cite>Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images</cite></p>

Sean: There’s a tension I struggle with and I want to be honest about it here. I’ll do it by reading something you wrote in the book: “I hoped one day white people here would finally leave behind the belief that they mattered more. But what do you do when this glimmer of hope fades, and you are left with the belief that white people will never change — that the country, no matter what we do, will remain basically the same?”

Do you really think the country has remained the same?

Eddie: It all depends on what we mean by that. The throughline of American history is the value gap. So what does it mean to believe that white people matter more than others in the context of slavery? It’s very different than what it would mean in the context of Jim Crow, which is very different from what it would mean in the context of the industrialized cities, or in context of the first Black president. In each instance, there’s going to be an element of progress, but if that valuation evidences itself in dispositions and practices, then it’s still a throughline. Until we uproot it and the habits it produces, we’re basically the same.

Sean: That helps clarify my own thinking on this. The simple way to talk about this is to say that the arc of this country is clearly moving, however unevenly and awkwardly, in the direction of progress. But the deeper question you’re posing is, are our underlying values changing in any fundamental way, or are the manifestations of those values just taking on new — and undoubtedly better — forms? And if we don’t uproot the value structure, the thing that brings this ugliness into being remains untouched.

Eddie: That’s exactly right. This is what I mean when I say our progress is still laced with lies. Because we’re not getting to the core. We’re not getting to the heart of the problem. So in these moments, like we’re in now, they want us to tinker around the edges and not get to the heart of the problem. I keep saying over and over again we have to figure out how to be together differently. We can’t be mysteries anymore to each other. We can’t live like this.

People are complaining about taking down monuments, but our entire built environment is a monument to a deeper racial ideology. The highway systems in Chicago and New York are monuments to a particular racial ideology. So I think you’re absolutely right. This is why Jimmy always understood the problem to be a moral one. This is why he understood the justification for Black power. He fully understood that the problem at the heart of all of this is rooted in valuation and the dispositions that follow from them.


Sean: Part of the frustration with these conversations, not ours but these conversations more generally, is that they often get bogged down in this false choice between acknowledging the obvious progress and considering the problem solved or recognizing those victories without turning away from the root of the problem.

Eddie: A lot of folks view racial justice and racial equality as a philanthropic enterprise. It’s something that they can give to us. It almost reveals that at the heart of their conception of racial justice is charity, as opposed to justice. So part of what we have to do is to understand that frame as part of the problem. Racial justice is not something that you give to other people. It’s instantiated in the social arrangements, the way in which we imagine standing in right relation with one another. It’s a world defined by non-domination.

So people often ask me, “What else can I do? How can I help?” Commit yourself to building a more just world. Let’s do that. Once we get past the philanthropic model, we need to start getting at the heart of the matter. I had to watch my son deal with this. My dad had to watch me deal with this. His dad had to watch him deal with this. His dad had to teach him how to deal with this. People are saying it’s all better, but I can go back generations and see Black people witnessing this public ritual of Black grief and suffering. Somebody had to bury their child because of what? “Oh, look how far we’ve come!”

So part of our challenge is not to fall into the trap of this American insistence on gratitude and congratulations.

Sean: Baldwin believed that telling the truth about ourselves — really telling the truth — could release us from our past and make space for a new story about who and what we are as a country. What did he think that story would look like? Did he even get that far? Did you get that far?

Eddie: There’s a line that he wrote when he resigned from the editorial board of Liberator. [Liberator was an American socialist magazine that ran from 1918 to 1924.] It’s a line that almost moves me to tears every time I say it. He wrote, “I want us to do something unprecedented, and that is to be able to create a self without the need for enemies.” Right? “To create a self without the need for enemies.” What would a world look like with that as its cornerstone?

Sean: I’ve never seen it.

Eddie: Exactly. But that’s Baldwin’s idea of a New Jerusalem. Where we try to stand in right relation with one another, where we can see each other. Not in the name of some sentimental humanism that says we’re all the same. No, that’s not what he’s saying. Because we all got this funkiness in us. It’s the dark cellar of who we are. But that’s actually the bridge. Our suffering is the bridge. But how do we see each other so that we can be together for real? That to me is the ground for the world that I would love to inhabit. What it would look like in its details? I’m not sure. We would have to build it first.

Sean: You say that we’ll have to decide, once and for all, whether we will truly be a multiracial democracy. Do you believe, in your heart of hearts, that we will answer in the affirmative?

Eddie: Not really, to be honest. Our history tells me that we won’t do very well. In the moments that we’ve had something of this magnitude in front of us, we’ve taken steps forward while still doubling down on the value gap. The cornerstone of America’s carceral state is the same old value gap, and it’s just hard to imagine a true public infrastructure of care in this country. After all, we just doubled down on ugliness.

So our past doesn’t fill me with optimism, and it didn’t fill Baldwin with optimism either. But I also believe this: Wherever human beings are, we have a chance. Because we’re not just simply disasters — we’re also miracles.

Sean: But if this project we’re all involved in is truly Sisyphean, if we’re just going to keep rolling the boulder of equality up the hill only to watch it tumble back down to the ground, what’s the point?

Eddie: We have to conclude that the end is not the issue. What’s at the heart of this is not the end but the process. The struggle itself becomes the source of meaning.

Sean: That’s very existentialist.

Eddie: Exactly, but it’s true. It’s the beautiful struggle, right? When there’s no guarantee of the outcome, the fight itself becomes the motivation. But wherever human beings are, we have a chance. Things are fucked up, we all know it, but as Samuel Beckett said, “Fail, fail again, fail better.”

[Originally published on July 30, 2020 via Vox]