I saw Eddie Glaude as all good things used to appear—in a flash, captured somewhere in a snippet of video in my timeline. I can’t remember how and when and where but I remember thinking “holy shit, I want to read something like this.” A quick scan later and I found Begin Again, a book written by Glaude earlier this year, before the election, about where we are and, more importantly, who we are.
It is also a book about James Baldwin—one of the greatest writers to have ever lived. Glaude takes a running hop, skip, and jump at Baldwin’s work. Which is so entirely fascinating because Baldwin’s feelings about America changed throughout the Civil Rights Movement and into the terrors of the Reagan administration. His notes were constantly in flux.
But Baldwin was consistent on one front at least. Throughout all his interviews and essays and novels, he only asks us to look and see who we really are. Glaude writes:
Baldwin saw clearly what he was up against; he fully understood the power of the American lie. It is the engine that moves this place.
What is the lie that Glaude and Baldwin refer to? Well, it’s the story we tell ourselves about America, as Glaude explains later:
…any admission of such evils in our past is so thoroughly damning that some white people are loath to admit the reality in any form. For those who cling to the idea of America, so to speak, the fear is that such an admission about, for example, the evil of slavery would make us—and the idea—completely irredeemable.
We (white people) tell ourselves the lie in order to preserve our idea of America. The land of the free, the home of the brave. But Baldwin argued that by telling ourselves this lie then we hold ourselves back.
And all of America with us.
I noticed this lie in England—any mention of India is strictly forbidden. We’ll happily talk all day long about the Vietnam War and the evils of the Soviet Union but when it comes to how the British Empire and India…no. You’re simply being disrespectful for bringing it up. In fact, I’ve always sensed this from British people that they should be glad for the colonies. The implication is that we civilized them and they should be grateful.
So many lies.
Criticizing our homeland is not important in order to bring up drama. It’s not done in the spirit of trying to fling trash everywhere and make yourself sound somehow better and feel superior in the process. It’s about revealing the truth about what this country is so that we can change it. Baldwin believed that without the lie, we can fix our country.
“I would like us to do something unprecedented,” Baldwin wrote in 1967, “to create ourselves without finding it necessary to create an enemy.” In interviews with leading magazines, on television shows and in speeches across the globe, he had relentlessly deconstructed America’s race problem as, at its root, a fundamentally moral question with implications for who we take ourselves to be. Sure, policy mattered. Power mattered. But in the end, for Jimmy, what kind of human beings we aspired to be mattered more.
This is what Black Lives Matter asks of us, I realize now. It asks who we are in order to fix who we want to be.
Throughout the book, Glaude takes Baldwin’s writing from the 60’s and 70’s and then applies them to our present moment. Baldwin is hopeful at times, broken and angry and relentless in others. But goddamn I adore every moment of his writing.
Like this part, which I hope to etch into my memory, where Baldwin wrote about the murder of Martin Luther King:
Perhaps even more than the death itself, the manner of his death has forced me into a judgement concerning human life and human beings which I have always been reluctant to make…Incontestably, alas, most people are not, in action, worth very much; and yet, every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become.
Glaude’s book is a celebration of Baldwin’s work and life, and a plea for white people like myself to confront the lie that is at the root of all our problems. And it’s the best dang book I’ve read all year.
Behold! My newsletter—sent infrequently—about new things that I’m working on. Every so often it’ll contain notes about web design and publishing things that I’m interested in, too.