James Baldwin's Lessons For America

Wednesday, Sep 16, 2020

American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin poses at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979. 

American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin poses at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979. (RALPH GATTI/AFP via Getty Images)

We look back on the life and work of the great American writer and thinker James Baldwin.  



Eddie Glaude Jr., chair of the department of African American studies at Princeton University. Author of "Begin Again." (@esglaude)


Interview Highlights


On the inspiration for “Begin Again”

“I had to figure out how to deal with my despair, how to deal with my disillusionment in another moment of betrayal. So here we are. You know, we elect Barack Obama. The country is euphoric. My son is raised. He comes of age in a moment with a Black family in the White House. And then Black people are being killed in the streets. Black Lives Matter erupts. And then the country elects Donald Trump. And we see all of this nonsense, people doubling down on the ugliness. I had to figure out how to manage my rage and to hold on to my faith. That we could be otherwise. And Baldwin's writing offered me resources to think about our current moment in that way.”


On James Baldwin’s essay ‘The White Problem’ and the lies of white America

“If we've built a country predicated upon the idea that white people matter more than others, and that belief and that idea evidences itself in our dispositions and in our characters and our practices, it shapes our social, political and economic arrangements. We protect that belief with a series of lies, with an architecture of lies that protects our innocence. And so here we are in this moment. In this moment where demographic shifts are putting pressure on how we imagine the country. You know, those commercials on television with those racially ambiguous children and same sex marriages. There's this cultural unsettling that's happened. And people are worried about, ‘Well, is this the America that I know?’

“And so there's this clamoring for a different way of imagining who we are. And yet folks are doubling down on the lie. They're telling themselves the story that this is a white nation, the vein of old Europe. They're defending — some of them — the Confederate monuments, which in some ways, those monuments are monuments to a lie called the lost cause. They're insisting, in some ways, as Senator Tom Cotton did so recently, and as a description of the founders, that the founders saw slavery as a necessary evil. And in saying that in some ways he was trying to absolve them of the cruelty and barbarity of the institution. So we're in a moment where we're grappling with the implications of the lies that we've told ourselves in light of, in some ways, the monstrous implications of how we live our lives.”


On Baldwin’s time abroad

“Baldwin left America in 1948 as a relatively young man. And departing the United States was really important because he said that if he stayed in the country, he was either going to get killed or he was going to kill somebody. The anger, the hatred that was in his spirit, that he saw in his stepfather, he recognized was deeply and profoundly in himself. So he had to leave. He left and went to Paris. And there, engaged in this extraordinary act of self-creation. He willed himself into becoming one of America's most powerful writers. High school educated. I mean, we've got to be clear about coming from the ghetto of Harlem and what he achieved in that moment.

“But he realized once he left that he didn't leave America behind. He had to find the language, the culture, the rhythms that spoke to him and that's the only way he could actually complete and finish ‘Go Tell It On The Mountain.’ He needed the distance, the space to breathe in order to understand America. You know, it's so hard living in this place. And what I mean by that is this: some Americans can watch the murder of George Floyd and go, ‘Oh, my God, that's horrible.’ And then go about their day. Some of us have to watch it and then worry about our children. Worry about the people we love.

“Some of us have to deal with the ugliness of the country and then go to work and try to figure out how to keep being unsettled, those thousand daily cuts that come with being Black in this country. To try to keep the rage from boiling over, to try to hold ourselves together. Sometimes you just need space to breathe so that we could just be. Baldwin found that space often outside of the country. Sometimes we just got to retreat into our spaces where people love us to death. So they allow us to laugh full belly laughs. And to be rageful. And to not worry about the world at times."


On why America needs to ‘begin again’

“If we're tinkering around the edges in this country, we're going to leave in place this idea that Black folk can be devalued. If we tinker around the edges, we're not going to uproot the belief that white people matter more than others. If we tinker around the edges, we're going to leave in place all the things that devastate people. How long do we have to wait for your progress, as Jimmy said. We have to go back to where we began.

"So it's like me, as a 51-year-old man. If I'm going to change the way I live, I got to deal with you know, my first works. I've got to deal with the fact that my daddy deposited in my gut fear. And that I've been trying to prove since I was a boy that I'm not scared. I got to do my first works over. What does it mean for the nation to do its first works over? What did you intend to do when you set out? What were you saying when you gave voice to the principles of democracy and what got in the way? Do your first works over.”


[Originally published on September 7, 2020 via On Point]

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