BEGIN AGAIN: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. By Eddie S. Glaude Jr. Crown. 272 pages. $26.99.
A year before he died, James Baldwin stood to address the National Press Club. It was December 1986. A holiday wreath framed the lectern as he began. Surveying the room with a gleam in his eye, Baldwin went straight to the heart of the matter. “I speak,” he said, “as someone who represents a very complex country, which insists on being simple-minded.” Audience members shifted uncomfortably in their seats.
The scene is a powerful encapsulation of the late Baldwin. He spoke with his trademark wit, charm and passion for truth. Yet he also sounded weary. When he paused to laugh, his lungs rattled. He had dark circles under his eyes. It is this late Baldwin that Eddie Glaude offers us in his new book, “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.”
This is not the young Baldwin, who burst onto the scene as a prodigious literary talent and lent his voice and celebrity to the civil rights movement. Rather, this is Baldwin after the murders of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The movement had faded, the country had left its work unfinished, the Reagan years were deepening inequality, and Baldwin was struggling to hold on.
In his introduction, Glaude writes that Baldwin’s voice is uniquely resonant in this moment. As we live through the current administration’s assault on civil and human rights and its aversion to telling the truth, and as we make our way through a long summer of Black Lives Matter protests and a largely unchecked coronavirus pandemic, we may feel that we are struggling to hold on. Glaude reminds us that we are not the first.
“In writing this book,” he explains, “I wanted to understand more fully how Baldwin navigated his disappointments. … I needed to understand how he harnessed his rage and lived his faith.”
What follows is a book unlike any other I have read. Not only is Baldwin brought rushing forth from the page, with all the beauty of his prose and complexity of his thought, but Glaude’s voice joins him with a force and clarity of its own. Sitting with the two of them was profoundly affecting. The book caused me to shout, to weep, to shake, and then to set it down and step back. More than once I had to catch my breath.
The lasting effect, however, was one of liberation. After spending a few hundred pages with James Baldwin and Eddie Glaude, I felt freed by the truths they told so unflinchingly. Replacing our simple-minded stories with a more complex and honest history, Baldwin and Glaude offer us a path forward that is both exceedingly difficult and genuinely hopeful.
The path forward can only be found by refusing to accept what Glaude calls “the lie.” The lie is the myth of American goodness and exceptionalism.
“It secures our national innocence in the face of the ugliness and evil we have done,” Glaude writes. So long as we commit ourselves to this lie, obscuring and erasing the lived experience of Black Americans, we will be caught in the cycles of suffering it perpetuates in ourselves and our country. Refusing to accept the lie any longer will be frightening for some, but, as Baldwin once said, perhaps through the trace of a smile, “If you’re scared to death, walk toward it.”
In many ways, “Begin Again” is written in the spirit of walking toward what has troubled us for so long. The book is a dizzying combination of cultural history, prophetic truth-telling and personal reflection. Yet more than anything it is an invitation. Readers are asked to begin facing things we have never faced before in the hope that we — in the hope that the country — might begin to change. It’s hard to imagine a better moment for this book to appear.
Readers may feel grateful to Eddie Glaude for bringing us Baldwin in such a powerfully rendered way. We also may feel an awareness that a torch has been passed; Glaude writes as poetically and prophetically as Baldwin himself. After I finished the book, I went back to the shelf for more of both.
Reviewer Jeremy Rutledge is the senior minister at Circular Congregational Church in Charleston.