Begin Again, James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own By Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.
Begin Again (2020) looks back at the incomparable work of the writer James Baldwin, who spent decades dissecting America’s fundamental racism problem. His ideas may provide insights for us today, so Begin Again seeks to answer the question: What advice would Baldwin have on issues like Trumpism or Black Lives Matter?
Have a look at current affairs through the lens of James Baldwin’s legacy.
The United States of America was really founded twice. The first time was in 1776, when “equality” was made one of the nation’s founding principles. But how could this be true if the nation allowed slavery?
The second founding took place following the Civil War, during the period known as the Reconstruction. At this time, America could have resolved its hypocrisy around that founding principle. But things didn’t go that way. Instead, the South enacted racist Jim Crow laws that reasserted a belief in white supremacy.
In the 1950s and 1960s, another opportunity came to right these wrongs. A civil rights and Black freedom movement succeeded in putting an end to Jim Crow laws, but it would fall short of fixing the problems at the heart of America. It is in this moment in American history that the writer and essayist James Baldwin became famous for writing poetic and revelatory works that cut to the heart of what he called America’s “white problem.”
In these summary, you’ll learn
- what Baldwin learned about racism through his difficult upbringing;
- how escaping America let Baldwin see things more clearly; and
- why we shouldn’t blame Trump for America’s problems.
James Baldwin was committed to addressing a corrosive American lie.
There are those who refuse to see America as anything less than great. They’ll tell you that the founding principles of democracy and equality are alive and well. They’ll say that the country’s history of racism is a thing of the past and that everyone has an equal chance to live the American dream.
But this is all part of the lie that has been at the heart of America since the beginning. The lie is a set of false ideas that serve to prop up the idea of white supremacy and suggest that Black Americans are somehow less intelligent, less ambitious, less beautiful, or less important. The lie puts forth the toxic notion that white lives matter more than others. The author refers to the central idea of the lie, of white lives being more valuable, as the value gap.
The key message here is: James Baldwin was committed to addressing a corrosive American lie.
The lie, and the value gap, have been tearing the US apart for generations. In that time, the nation has had multiple opportunities to acknowledge the problem, but so far, it has stubbornly refused to do so. Instead, the value gap has become so pervasive, so deeply ingrained into America’s narrative, that it can seep into a person on a subconscious level. The toxic effect that the lie has on Black Americans can lead to trauma and self-hatred, something about which the writer James Baldwin was deeply aware.
Baldwin’s stepfather was affected by the lie. He was filled with hate. He hated white people, yet he also went to the grave believing the lies white people said about him. In his 1955 essay, “Me and My House,” Baldwin recounts what it was like growing up with an abusive stepfather, and how the hate that filled his stepfather threatened to overpower him.
Eventually, Baldwin understood the futility of that hate. He recognized that people like his stepfather were imprisoned by it. The way out of this prison, Baldwin believed, was love. By recognizing that we’re all human beings with the same desires, we can love one another and end the lie before it makes things even worse.
As we’ll see in the blinks ahead, Baldwin would return to the idea that love is the answer. It would sometimes put him at odds with those in other Black power movements, but for Baldwin, love was one of the most powerful tools for dismantling the lie.
James Baldwin made it his job to serve as witness to the Black American experience.
James Baldwin’s international fame as a novelist and essayist came gradually. By 1957, he’d written his first two novels, the well-received Go Tell It on the Mountain, which was loosely based on his own upbringing in Harlem, and Giovanni’s Room, which was controversial at the time for its frank depiction of a homosexual relationship. He’d also published a critically acclaimed collection of essays entitled Notes of a Native Son.
Throughout the 1950s, Baldwin lived in Paris. There, he had some distance from America and the corrosive lie that could make getting through a single day a challenge. Paris provided him with an environment that made it easier for him to work, but in 1957, something was drawing him back to the US. In fact, he was being drawn to a place he’d never been before: the American South.
The key message here is: James Baldwin made it his job to serve as witness to the Black American experience.
During his first tour of the South, Baldwin saw how deeply the lie resonated in America. The South was just taking its first steps toward ending segregation, and Baldwin saw how the lie and the hate both traumatized Black Southerners and hollowed out many white people.
When he arrived at the airport in Montgomery, Alabama, for example, Baldwin recalled the hateful look he received from three white men. As he explained, he’d never before seen “such a concentrated, malevolent poverty of spirit.”
The trip south was essentially an assignment for an article published in Partisan Review, entitled “Nobody Knows My Name.” But the assignment served as a powerful awakening for Baldwin. For it was on this journey that Baldwin came to understand his calling: to be not just a writer, but a witness, too. This meant writing notjust for himself but also on behalf of others. He would be a conduit for the experiences of Black Americans, give voice to the voiceless, and expose the lie. He would show the deniers and disbelievers what was really going on in America and why change was so desperately needed.
On his trip, Baldwin met Dorothy Counts, a schoolgirl who had to endure a gauntlet of spit and verbal abuse on her way to class, as one of the first Black students to attend Harry Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. With his thoughtful and elegant prose and his sharp insight into the human condition, Baldwin told the story of what he had seen in the South and of people like Dorothy Counts. He served as witness, and the world began to see the lie and the toll it was taking.
In the 1960s, Baldwin was between worlds when it came to Black Power leadership.
Following the end of Jim Crow laws in the South, the civil rights movement began in earnest. There was hope that enough momentum was building to bring lasting change in the 1960s – not just an end to segregation in the South, but an end to the lie.
In 1961, Baldwin penned an article called “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King.” It asked a question that many were wondering: What kind of leadership will it take to bring about lasting change? Was King’s call for love and nonviolent protest good enough? Baldwin himself wasn’t so sure.
The key message here is: In the 1960s, Baldwin was between worlds when it came to Black Power leadership.
While Baldwin didn’t like to be labeled an intellectual, he was highly intelligent. He always looked at things from all angles and was exhaustive in his dissection of any given topic. Baldwin was all about nuance, and this wasn’t always appreciated by others who were eager for change. This was especially the case when it came to the more militant Black Power groups.
Throughout US history, the American government has tended to make single grand concessions when it comes to race and then want to consider the issue of racism and equality solved. This is essentially what happened with the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of the 1960s. These bills passed, but nothing really changed. America clearly still clung to the lie, and things escalated. Groups like the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army, or BLA, rose to prominence.
Baldwin supported the Panthers. After all, the police were armed and using their weapons to beat and kill Black people with impunity. It was only natural that the Panthers would show up and call for Black people to arm themselves. What else did people expect? How were Black people supposed to feel anything but enraged when white America continued to turn its back on them after offering only the most watered-down concessions?
But even though Baldwin saw the Panthers as a justified response, he didn’t exactly see them as the answer to the problem. Within the Panthers and the BLA were separatist agendas that he saw as dead ends. Baldwin never agreed with those who drew fixed lines based on color; he simply didn’t believe that color should dictate who we are.
He still saw love as the answer. But then, in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
Following the death of many friends, Baldwin left the US in search of healing.
In 1968, Baldwin introduced Martin Luther King, Jr. at a fundraiser in California. As part of his remarks, Baldwin spoke about America’s betrayals in the face of the recent civil rights movement. America had ignored Rosa Parks in 1958, he explained, and it had ignored the people marching for freedom. A “wall of white supremacy” stood in the way of real progress.
There was no celebration of King’s accomplishments in Baldwin’s introduction or those of the civil rights movement in general. Instead, Baldwin spoke of frustrations and disappointments. It was an awkward introduction for Dr. King, but in truth, Baldwin and King had always been skeptical of one another.
Nonetheless, when King was murdered by an assassin’s bullet less than a month later, Baldwin was crushed. To recuperate, he once again left the US.
The key message here is: Following the death of many friends, Baldwin left the US in search of healing.
By the end of the 1960s, Baldwin was in a tailspin. The loss of King, along with the murders of Malcolm X and his friend, the activist Medgar Evers, had broken his heart. He retreated to Istanbul, where he had a community of supportive friends.
It wasn’t a smooth recovery. In 1969, Baldwin had attempted suicide. But by 1972, he’d regained some clarity and felt energized to once again take up the role of witness. What emerged was No Name in the Street, another collection of essays.
In many ways, No Name in the Street is the response to his 1963 collection, The Fire Next Time. In Fire, Baldwin issued a warning about what could happen if America didn’t acknowledge that the lie of white supremacy was eating away at the country, and that it needed to choose a different way forward. By the end of the 1960s, it was clear that America refused to change. The riots of the late sixties and early seventies, when cities like Detroit and Newark erupted in violence, proved Baldwin’s warnings to be all too prophetic.
No Name in the Streets was a different kind of book. Formally, it was more experimental, attempting to wrestle with grief and trauma and find a way to make sense of insensible things. Unlike The Fire Next Time, No Name wasn’t an immediate success with critics. But it remains a vital work of art, only made possible by Baldwin finding a safe refuge away from the madness of America – gaining the distance that is sometimes needed in order to see things clearly.
Baldwin’s worldview changed, but he never gave up hope entirely.
Following the deaths of so many Black leaders, did Baldwin still believe that love was the answer?
As he was working on No Name in the Street, he had to reassess this idea. In a 1970 interview for the Transatlantic Review, Baldwin explained that with love and vulnerability, Americans could “end the racial nightmare and achieve our country.” But as he explained elsewhere, this would no longer involve him trying to save white Americans.
Previously, Baldwin’s role as witness had included attempts to appeal to white America’s sense of morality. It was still possible, he’d believed, to prevent another generation of white people from being hollowed out by hate. However, by 1970, he had come to see this as pointless. America, he concluded, had no moral conscience.
The key message here is: Baldwin’s worldview changed, but he never gave up hope entirely.
When he went public with this change of heart and stated that he would no longer be trying to save white America’s soul, some critics took this as evidence that he’d turned cynical. Indeed, some of the champions he’d gained in white literary circles in the early 1960s were less eager to embrace his later work. But as the author sees it, Baldwin wasn’t turning cynical at all; he was being practical.
The heartbreak of America turning its back on the civil rights movement required this change. If Baldwin were to move forward, he had to let go of certain hopes – which is much different than saying he’d turned cynical and given up hope altogether.
Indeed, as the 1970s came to an end, it seemed that Baldwin was correct: America simply lacked a moral conscience. At the dawn of the eighties, the country elected Ronald Reagan as its president – a man who signified the nation’s commitment to the white supremacist lie at the heart of America.
In Baldwin’s eyes, Reagan was proof of America’s deep-seated madness. The nation didn’t want to confront its racism. In fact, it wanted to roll back any evidence that might contradict the lie, which is what Reagan set out to do. The Fair Housing Act of 1968, one of America’s rare attempts to address racial inequalities, was just one example of an important piece of legislation dismantled by Reagan.
Yet Baldwin didn’t give up hope entirely. As the civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois put it, one can have “a hope not hopeless but unhopeful.” This subtle difference between hopelessness and being unhopeful was something Baldwin needed to understand in order to wake up, day after day, and find the spirit to keep going.
Baldwin’s visit to the New South revealed the persistence of America’s lie.
At the dawn of the 1980s, Baldwin was ready to enter his second phase as witness to the lie in America. It fits then, that at this time, Baldwin would make another trip South, one that would mirror the 1957 trip that inspired him to take up his role as witness in the first place.
This time, the journey would serve as the narrative for a documentary by Dick Fontaine and Pat Hartley entitled I Heard it Through the Grapevine. At the beginning of the film, the stage is set as Baldwin sits with Sterling A. Brown, a Howard University professor who guided Baldwin on his 1957 visit. Brown reaffirms Baldwin’s role as witness by saying, “What you’re going to see and how you render what you see. That’s very important to us.”
The key message here is: Baldwin’s visit to the New South revealed the persistence of America’s lie.
During his second journey to the South, Baldwin saw a lot of small gestures that covered up America’s refusal to make meaningful changes. There were memorials and streets named after Martin Luther King Jr. But what can you do with a memorial? Nothing. What does it mean that Martin Luther King Jr Avenue runs through poor neighborhoods that have been left behind? It means that these gestures are ultimately empty and irrelevant.
Today, better efforts are being made in the South to retell the story of America and expose the lie.
In Montgomery, Alabama, there are two important institutions that deal directly with America’s troubled history: the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The museum details the slave markets and the dark reality of what went on in America’s founding years leading up to the Civil War. It gracefully draws the connection between slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the current system of mass incarceration in the US. It features stories and images that can be hard to watch. But even though confronting America’s dark legacy isn’t easy, it is a vital part of the healing process.
The museum and the memorial are examples of what needs to be done in America: lay the facts bare, reveal the lie, own up to it, and begin the discussion on how to move forward. But there are eerie contradictions nearby that show how much work still needs to be done. Montgomery is also home to the Alabama Confederate Monument, honoring the soldiers that fought for the South.
Baldwin’s ideas are still highly relevant in times of Trumpism.
As with the election of Ronald Reagan, the election of Donald Trump exposed the fact that America’s lie about race is still alive and thriving. But there is a tendency to point to Trump as the root of the problem, which is a grave mistake.
That’s because the problem is much bigger than Trump, and not electing him president for a second term won’t solve it. The problem is Americans’ complicity in maintaining a way of life that adheres to the value gap, the notion that white lives are of more value than Black lives. Trump isn’t America’s problem – he’s America itself. He’s just one example of what Baldwin was trying to expose from the 1950s onward.
The key message here is: Baldwin’s ideas are still highly relevant in times of Trumpism.
What Trump’s election unleashed, with white supremacists marching in the streets and refugees locked in cages, isn’t new. The Trumpist agenda reflects a part of America that had been writhing under the surface since America’s founding. It’s part of the lie that Baldwin was pointing out until his death in 1987. It’s part of America, and until America is honest and admits this, it will continue to tear the country apart.
Trumpism is not exceptional. Blaming Trumpism or Trump supporters isn’t the answer because this effectively dodges the real issue at hand: the insidious value gap in society. Yes, Trump and his supporters embrace that value gap and believe that white lives should matter more because that’s how it’s been throughout America’s history. But we shouldn’t waste our time demonizing Trumpism when the real problem runs much deeper.
Baldwin believed in uniting people through the understanding that we are all human beings. Through love and understanding of this brotherhood, a new America – what Baldwin called a “new Jerusalem” – could be attained. Freedom and equality could be attained. But this can only happen once we confront the past in an honest and meaningful way. We need to atone and reconcile with the trauma that has been inflicted upon generations of people through misguided hatred and racism.
If this happens, it could be possible to squeeze the value gap out of existence. So far, however, Republicans have been eager to deny that the lie exists, and maintain the status quo. Democrats have been hesitant to address the issue of white supremacy for fear of alienating white voters. But now is the time to put away the fears and incremental gestures of politics. The day has come for big ideas and bold moves forward.
Time and time again, America has chosen the familiar and the comfortable in the form of our racist status quo. We can’t let that happen once again. The consequences will only grow more and more severe.
The key message in these summary:
James Baldwin made it his purpose to serve as witness and give voice to the voiceless. He tried for the majority of his career to expose the truth about racism in America. Baldwin’s writing warned of escalating rage and the violence that could erupt if America continued to avoid dealing with racism. It warned people that the country would be torn apart if America didn’t confront the issue of white supremacy, which continued to thrive throughout America. His legacy shows that we must continue to expose the reality of racism and force the country to confront it before things can get better.
About the Author
Eddie S. Glaude Jr. is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor at Princeton University and author of Democracy in Black
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