Recently, I asked some close friends to join me in a book study of the New York Times bestseller Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Professor Eddie Glaude Jr. The author compelled me, a white man with ancestral heritage I didn’t earn, to learn more about a lie that our nation has protected for centuries.
I became curious after listening to interviews in which Professor Glaude shared his disillusionment with the United States. His dismay stems from America’s refusal to come to grips with a racist past that has perhaps defined what the country is today more than any other identifiable feature.
This refusal, Glaude contended, allows for the advancement of a lie regarding what this nation is and what it stands for to continue. This lie provides cover for a “value gap” that threatens our future and our collective soul.
Glaude shared that Baldwin’s “delicate balance between rage and love” provided him with perspective. It allowed him to see these challenging times both for what they were and for what could come of them if we were willing to start over.
Rethinking America’s Past
Before we start over, we must own the past. Glaude references Baldwin from his last novel, Just Above My Head: “Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated. If one refuses abdication, one begins again.” Time and time again, this country has demonstrated a stubborn commitment to a storyline of a great nation with a race problem that good people fought against and successfully overcame.
The truth is, we are not and never have been a great nation. The race problem was not simply a flaw; it was a calculated strategy that made our nation’s success possible. Without the subjugation of the Black race, the US would not have become what it is today.
In an interview with BBC, Director of African American Studies at the College of Charleston Kameelah Martin stated, “There is no part of American history or American economic history that isn’t touched by slave labor.”
Glaude, with Baldwin as his guide, claimed, “Liberation from the languages and categories that box us in requires that we tap the source of it all, free ourselves of the lie, and start the whole damn thing over.”
He acknowledged that this will be no easy feat, but contends that the failure of the “after times” following Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement, and even the presidency of our nation’s first Black commander-in-chief is directly tied to the continuance of the lie.
If we can free ourselves of a narrative that glosses over the dehumanization, abuse, torture, and trauma caused by our actions, we will be in a position to truly make amends.
Evaluating the Present
As my friends discussed Glaude’s writing with me, they pushed me to reexamine many of my current positions regarding society and politics. Furthermore, they forced me to examine how much I was willing to give up for equality to be realized.
I never seriously contemplated the extent to which I perpetuated the American obsession with what white America wants. It was hard to hear, but it was true. My default was to always consider, “Will enough white people be on board?” That limited my vision and imagination regarding what was possible for this nation. In fact, it was probably people like me that allowed for the failure of the previous “after times.”
I’ve spent too much time contemplating how to win over Donald Trump voters because of my fear that the US will become a banana republic with a second Trump term. In Begin Again, Glaude changed my outlook with the following words:
“In our after times, our task, then, is not to save Trump voters — it isn’t to convince them to give up their views that white people ought to matter more than others. Our task is to build a world where such a view has no place or quarter to breathe.”
Glaude explained that we must not allow this current political climate to “strangle our imaginations.” We can get it right this time, even if we don’t get everyone on board. If enough people of goodwill are willing to honestly examine our past and contemplate how to “build a better world where the color of one’s skin matters little in the quality of life one chooses to live,” we may begin to see fewer moments like the ones we recently witnessed in Minneapolis, Louisville, and Kenosha.
Navigating ‘After Times’
These are highlights that capture our attention, but they represent a national condition that goes far beyond these news stories. Addressing police brutality is the right thing to do at the moment, but it is not enough. Our nation needs to start over. The myth of America being a great nation and the land of the free was a “cruel joke” to Baldwin. He watched America fail him again and again because of the nation’s refusal to see itself for what it is.
I recommend that everyone not only read Begin Again but do so with an open heart and an open mind. Historian Jon Meacham noted that “One need not agree with everything in these pages to learn much from them… Begin Again challenges, illuminates, and points us toward if not a more perfect union then at least a more just one.”
No book has ever caused me to reexamine myself and my priorities to the extent this one has. Begin Again should become seminal literature regarding how to successfully navigate the “after times” and come out stronger and more decent than ever.