BY DR. GLENN C. ALTSCHULER
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER
“People who imagine that history flatters them,” James Baldwin once wrote, “are impaled in their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves of the world.”
For much of his life, Baldwin examined the contradictions between freedom and democracy and slavery and white supremacy in the United States, bearing witness “to make it real. To force it on the world’s attention.”
In “Begin Again,’’ Eddie Glaude Jr., a professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, author of “Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul,’’ and an MSNBC analyst, provides a close reading of Baldwin’s iconic essays and books, his faith in the possibility that White Americans could change, and his disillusionment, after the assassinations of Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin, that Blacks could “awaken the sleeper.”
Moving between past and present, the book also contains Glaude’s proposals for achieving “an America where becoming white is no longer the price of the ticket.”
Written before the deaths of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, “Begin Again’’ is a searching and searing, powerful, passionate, and personal critique of American society and politics that anticipates what may well be a moment of moral reckoning for our nation.
That moral reckoning (followed by the creation of a truly multi-racial democracy), Glaude maintains, along with Baldwin, does not involve understanding the “pathologies” of Black culture. It rests on an “unflinching” acknowledgement by whites of “the lie at the heart of the American idea.”
A stark choice
The fundamental foundation of that lie is that our basic creed is that all Americans are created equal – and (with the end of slavery, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, desegregation, affirmative action, and the election of Barack Obama), we have made substantial progress toward overcoming our racist past and perfecting our Union.
Embedded in the lie is a pervasive perception, stoked recently, by Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, that Blacks are lazy, dishonest, dumb, sexually promiscuous, prone to criminal behavior, welfare kings and queens.
The choice now facing Americans, according to Glaude, is stark: without the self-deceiving idea, “the whole house comes tumbling down. But if we don’t rid ourselves of the idea of white America, we seal our fate.”
Nor surprisingly, Glaude wants Confederate statues to come down. He indicates as well that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other slaveholding Founding Fathers aren’t his heroes: “They can’t be stuffed down my throat.”
Suggests national apology
Glaude understands that Black identity is a source of solidarity and liberation. That said, he believes that Whites made identity politics necessary. And as Baldwin put it, “a certain acceptance of blackness sprung the trap, imprisoning us in the very categories we needed to escape.”
“Embracing one’s identity,” Glaude adds, “does not settle the matter at hand; it is the result of a life lived fully, not one with our heads stuck in the sand searching for that essential grain.”
The moral reckoning, Glaude suggests, should begin with a national apology for slavery, segregation, and racism; the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and reparations. He is not optimistic, however, that radical change will come anytime soon. America, he emphasizes, remains profoundly racist and many, many whites are “perfectly comfortable with that fact.”
‘Cling to hope’
James Baldwin, Glaude reminds us, declared that “hope is invented every day.”
W.E.B DuBois, who ended his long life in self-imposed exile in Africa, described “a hope not hopeless but unhopeful.”
Professor Glaude, who wants so very much for Americans to “begin again,” concludes that “We must cling to hope, but it is a hope drenched in blood and disappointment.”
Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He wrote this review for the Florida Courier.
Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. By Eddie S. Glaude Jr. Crown. 239 pp. $27.