Lessons From James Baldwin: An Interview with Eddie Glaude

Friday, Jun 5, 2020

Author James Baldwin

Author James Baldwin (Ted Thai/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty)

Eddie Glaude is a public voice for this present moment. As a scholar and a pundit, he speaks prophetically about race and racism. His latest book, due out in August, covers the life and work of the writer James Baldwin, delving into their lessons for our own time. Last fall, Glaude visited the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics to discuss his new book and give a lecture entitled, “James Baldwin and the Moral Crisis of American Democracy.” During his October visit, Religion & Politics Editor Marie Griffith sat down with Glaude for an interview. His words are more presicent than ever today as the country confronts mass protests over the latest killings of black men and women, most famously Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd.

Eddie S. Glaude Jr. is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor at Princeton University, where he is the chair of the African American Studies department. He is a columnist at TIME magazine, and he regularly appears on television and radio to discuss current events. He is the author of Democracy in Blackand most recently of Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Religion & Politics: You intentionally write and speak for wide audiences beyond the academy. Why and how do you do that kind of public work?

Eddie Glaude: I’m a philosophical pragmatist, and I’m a scholar of John Dewey. Dewey has a view that philosophy at its best is a form of social criticism. The idea is to try to bring our skill sets to bear on the problems of human beings. How do we think about the contradictions, the conflict, the things that block the way to our manifesting and evidencing the good in our lives? What I’ve tried to do over the course of my career is to figure out how to do that work at a certain level of accessibility and with a certain level of care and nuance.

On the one hand, there are my philosophical commitments. On the other hand, there is a commitment to the craft of writing. I have this commitment to the idea that my politics should be evidenced in my form. There is no better form or more democratic form than the genre of the essay. I think there is no better vehicle for democratic accessibility in the writing than the simple sentence. I have had to work my way into understanding writing as an exercise where my mother, my mama in Mississippi, can read what I write and understand the argument. And not do so in a way that compromises the complexity and nuance of the position, but to work harder at writing with a certain level of clarity so that I can convey the point. So, I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing as a scholar and I’m working at my craft, at trying to be the type of writer that everyone can read if they try.

R&P: What advice would you have for scholars, particularly younger scholars, if they aspire to have a more public voice?

EG: One of the things that I think is so important is that we spend a lot of time honing our craft, acquiring a level of expertise in a subject matter, and a kind of discipline and dedication to the life of the mind. A lot of times what people want to do is to jump to the public stuff and not do the hard work of laying the foundation—of really understanding how you think, understanding more clearly your commitments, and how to make those commitments manifest in the ways in which you engage ideas. That work goes into cultivating habits of deep listening, and really working daily to master a bibliography that can be ready at hand so that when a conversation happens in the public domain, you’re not reaching and panicking, but you have ready at hand a body of literatures that can form and shape your interventions.

To young scholars, I would say do your homework, and live a commitment to the life of the mind. That involves disciplines of reading, that involves habits of listening, that involves understanding the bibliographies that shape how you read and how you see the world. Then, when the opportunity comes—because the opportunity came to me—then you’re ready.  I don’t think I would have been ready if it came to me when I first started at Bowdoin, or when I first started at Princeton for that matter, because I still had a lot of growing to do in my profession and in my work.

R&P: A clip of you on Nicolle Wallace’s MSNBC show went viral last summer after the El Paso shooting at the Walmart. It was about the U.S. and white supremacy, and there is this powerful moment, a culmination of that, when you said, “This is us!” Tell me more about that moment and what you meant by that.

EG: I’ve been thinking for a while about the way in which we exceptionalize Donald Trump. In our language, in the field of religion, he becomes an avatar for all of our sins. We displace our sins onto him. In that act, we absolve ourselves of how we’re implicated in the mess of our current living. As I was thinking about what it meant to make Donald Trump the source of all our national problems, to me it amounts to an evasion of the deep-rooted problems that define the country and that in some ways are at the source of the rot of our democracy.

I was thinking about El Paso, and I was thinking about the young mother and father who died protecting their child, and I was thinking about the elderly couple, the woman who lost her husband. I was looking at a colleague on set who was having a very difficult time talking about it because he is from El Paso and he was Latino. Every time he spoke, he was on the verge of tears. And Nicolle Wallace asked me a question, and suddenly it all came together. Part of what I wanted to do in that moment—and her generosity and brilliance as an anchor gave me the space to do it—was to disrupt a certain kind of moral absolution that happens when we displace everything onto Trump and say, this is not about just him. He’s not the problem. Getting rid of Donald Trump won’t solve our problems. This is us. It was important in that moment, at least for me, to channel all the stuff that I had been reading about James Baldwin, to channel my emotions as I was witnessing a colleague struggle because this was his community, these were people he was close to. It just came out. It happened to resonate with people, and I was pleasantly surprised.

R&P: We frequently hear all of these problems are about economic populism and not race. You spoke to that as well. Tell us more about what your response is when you hear people say that.

EG: It’s an evasion. People tend to think of race as a kind of bounded subject that can only be evidenced in moments of explicit discrimination or the loud screams of obvious bigots. It often happens that people want to ignore the ways race continues to overdetermine our lives in this moment, and how it has driven our political process, particularly since 2008 and the election of Barack Obama. The kind of deep racial anxieties that define our country as white, working people who feel that they’ve lost a step and the country doesn’t reflect the country that they remember, that they’re a part of, and they feel like they’re being left behind. The Tea Party misrepresented what we knew was happening. I was a part of the pundit class at the time in a different iteration as folks were talking about them. Folks were saying, “This was deeply racist,” and they said, “No this is economic populism, they are concerned about growing deficits, about overreach of the federal government.” What we do know now is that all of that was a lie. At the heart of it was an attempt to snatch the country back to a period that can no longer be retrieved. It’s one of the things that we do as a country. We tend to fall back on these illusions as a way to protect our innocence and to justify our willful ignorance. I think the way we represented the Tea Party was an example of that.

R&P: Let’s shift to talk about your written work. Your new work looks at the life and work of James Baldwin. What drew you to Baldwin?

EG: Jimmy’s anger, his rage, his love, his generosity, his vulnerability, his insistence of his own individuality. He was fond of saying he had no antecedents. He, for me, represents this extraordinary black democratic perfectionism, this attempt to create a self in a world that denies that act. He does so not with the aspiration toward wholeness, but with the understanding that he’s broken. I forget that form of Japanese pottery where you have something that’s broken. Is it kintsugi, where you fill the cracks with gold? The idea is not to make it whole, but to understand that in this brokenness one can be amazingly beautiful. I’ve always been attracted to that act of self-creation on the part of Baldwin.

But then there’s the truthteller, his searing account of America. I think there is no other critic who understands the country, who understands us, who can come close to Baldwin. I’ve been thinking about him since graduate school. I’ve been running away from him for a while, but he’s always in my work. He’s always been present. I just made him explicit finally.

The later Baldwin work, the nonfiction in particular, for me, offers a blueprint for our own moment. Baldwin saw Reagan on the horizon. He saw what happened that produced Ronald Reagan. He saw the choices that were being made that set the stage for Donald Trump. Because many folk don’t read later Baldwin, I thought it was time for me to write about that explicitly. No Name in the Street in 1972 is the first book after his long silence. King gets murdered in ‘68. After ’68, Baldwin is flailing about. There are interviews but no book. There is not much there. He is trying to figure it out. He is trying to gather up the pieces not only personally and existentially, but also he is trying to figure out how to write at the level of form at a moment when everything in him has fractured. The betrayal is so complete. It’s fascinating to read him in this moment, to read how it shows up in No Name in the Street.

R&P: You say your book is set in the “after times”—after the promise of the civil rights movement was met with the murder of activists like Malcom X, Martin Luther King, and Medgar Evers. Do you think we’re living in an “after time” now and in what ways?

EG: I get the phrase from Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas. Whitman is writing Democratic Vistas right after the Civil War, at the dawn of the Gilded Age. He sees the disease in the land, how democracy is being attacked. It’s an interregnum. It’s a moment when the old world is dying, a new world is trying to be born, but the ugliness of the old world is wrapped around its throat. Here we are, coming out of the promise of eight years of a black president, the activism of Black Lives Matter, which brought to the fore contradictions in policing in the country. What did we get in response? We got voter ID laws and voter suppression. And then we vomited up Donald Trump. We’re living in a moment where the promise of that election in 2008 has been betrayed, and it has been betrayed clearly in a number of different ways.

I’ve been thinking about all those young people, like Brittany Packnett, all of those young people in Ferguson, some of whom have lost their lives since, who gave everything to transform the country only to see what happened in 2016 and what’s happened since. For me, the immediate analogy is thinking about all those young people who went down South and risked everything to change the country, who saw Jimmie Jackson killed, who saw their friends assaulted and beaten, only to see 12 years after ’68, the election of Ronald Reagan. We are in a moment of betrayal, a moment when the country has turned its back on a certain vision of itself, and just as Baldwin wrote in his after times, we have to write in ours. After times are always interregnums, they are a conjunctural moment, as Stuart Hall would say. They are moments or crises and moments of possibility. But it all depends on the kinds of choices we make, in terms of the kind of world we want.

R&P: How else does Baldwin speak to that, in what to do in these after times?

EG: The first thing that he does as a poet is bear witness. He wants to tell the story. He insists that we tell a different story about who we are, because he still believes in a New Jerusalem. He still believes in a New Jerusalem in the book of Ezekiel and the book of Revelations. But he shifts. He says we have to change our focus. Our task is not to save white America; they have to save themselves. He wants us to spend our energy building a world that releases us from the bondage of the categories that trap us. And that’s hard to do in an age where many of us will appeal to our identities as a ground for politics. In an age where white resentments have overdetermined distribution of advantage and disadvantage. Jimmy risked everything in that moment. He risked his career. He didn’t get a Nobel Prize in literature for a reason. Because he wanted to bear witness. He wanted to tell the story. He said he wanted to tell the story of those who “survived it all,” those who are still wounded and broken, not only the story of those who didn’t survive, but also the stories of those who survived, but barely. So that’s what we have to do.

R&P: In the description of your talk, in describing Baldwin’s era, you wrote, “Choices had been made, and were continually made, to believe that ours was a country where white people were valued more than others.” What similar choices do you see facing our country today? 

EG: I think it’s the same choice. It’s insidious. We have this view that racial justice is a zero-sum game. That in order for us to be a racially just society, we have to take something from deserving white people and give it to undeserving people of color. And it’s just wrong. It’s not a zero-sum game. We simply have to expand the pot. We are the richest nation in the history of the world, and people hoard opportunity, they hoard so much. Part of what we’ve seen is that people think whiteness ought to accord one a certain kind of advantage, and when it doesn’t, there’s a kind of backlash.

We have to build a world where whiteness doesn’t matter, where it has no effect on the outcomes of one’s life. Just as we would want to build a world where blackness doesn’t matter, it’s just a part of who we are. This is where I translate Jimmy’s insight. We want to build a New Jerusalem. I want to build the world where the kinds of commitments certain Trump voters hold have no quarter to breathe, but I’m not going to spend my energy trying to convince them to hold different commitments.

R&P: Here we are in a new presidential election cycle. All kinds of things are happening and the news cycle is relentless as it always is. (Editor’s Note: For reference, this interview was conducted in October of 2019.) What you’re focusing on right now? What stories are rising to the top, or what stories should be rising to the top? 

EG: You know it’s hard to answer that question because we have two things happening simultaneously. We have a constitutional crisis that’s happening—the erosion of basic norms of democracy. The erosion of basic institutions and structures that have been an important part of the Republic since its founding. The effects of unbridled executive power have come home to roost. I was screaming during the Obama administration that we needed to be cautious about executive orders, that the imperial presidency was wrong, whether a Democrat was in office or not, and it would be wrong if a Republican was in office. I remember saying explicitly, if you have someone who is not beholden to norms with that kind of unchecked power, all hell could break loose. And then Donald Trump was elected. So, we’re in the midst of a constitutional crisis, and it’s a constitutional crisis about checks and balances, but it’s confused because there’s a debate about the limits of executive power and the role of the legislative branch that’s kind of muddled with the ongoing crisis around a corrupt president. It’s hard to distinguish those two because people are using executive power, the imperial presidency, to hide the corruption.

The other story, for me, that’s really important is the civil war within the Democratic Party. We have an opening for a much more progressive vision. People are talking about a living wage. Folks are talking about rent control. People are talking about free tuition for public education. So we’re seeing positions in the public domain that people did not think was possible. We see people talking about a wealth tax at 70 percent. Folks are talking about really reimagining the role of government. That’s huge. It seems to me that part of the work that I have to do as a social critic in these punditry spaces is to continue to open the space for the imagination so that people can see that this stuff is possible. My task is not as an ideologue or as an advocate for one candidate or another, but as someone who is paying attention to the civil war within the Democratic Party and to a kind of populist aggressive agenda that isn’t beholden to the two-party system as a whole.

R&P: I want to talk a little about polarization. At the center, we want to create spaces for more constructive dialogue. Given the political climate that we’re in right now, it’s not always clear that both sides should have equal weight. In this moment of polarization, what ideas do you have for really fostering constructive dialogue across profound divisions in this country?

EG: It’s so hard, especially in a moment where there is no middle ground. We all have to choose a side and be clear about it. We have to have the right interlocutors, people who are committed to thinking carefully with each other. I think we have to be more deliberate in modeling the kind of conversations that you’re talking about. We have to choose the right people to do it. We don’t want the schtick where you have the liberal and the conservative, and they just look like they’re having a conversation when in fact they’re just putting forward their views. I don’t know how that happens. I’m not answering the question really, but it seems to me that we have to be deliberate in who we ask to come into our spaces so that we can have the kind of conversation, across ideological dialogues, across differences, that are productive. I think it’s important that we’re clear about our political positions, that we’re clear about who we are, what we’re trying to do, and we’re clear about the values that define our communities, and the way in which those commitments are made and evidenced. We can’t shy away from being who we are.

[Originally published on June 2, 2020 via Religion & Politics]

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