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‘Begin Again’ Calls on James Baldwin to Make Sense of Today

Eddie S. Glaude Jr., author of “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.”Credit…Sameer A. Khan

Glaude’s defense of Baldwin’s trajectory is more cultural than literary. He imputes a political discomfort to critiques like Als’s that isn’t entirely fair, but he writes ardently and protectively. And in his own struggle to work his way through the welter of our present — what he calls the “after times,” borrowing Whitman’s phrase for America following the Civil War — he finds in Baldwin a cold-eyed realism sustained by a stubborn moral purpose.

Baldwin recoiled at the label of spokesman, identifying instead as a witness — someone who testified to what he saw without presuming to speak for anybody else. “You’re at the mercy of something, which has nothing to do with you, nothing to do with your career, nothing to do with your ambitions, nothing to do with your loneliness, nothing to do with your despair,” Baldwin told his first biographer, in 1963, recalling what he saw on his trips to the American South. It was his “job,” he said, “to make it real. To force it on the world’s attention.”

Not that the world was always willing to look. In “No Name in the Street,” a jangly, intermittently brilliant book from 1972 (“his most important work of social criticism,” Glaude writes), Baldwin describes how white liberals couldn’t bring themselves to accept even the most glaring evidence of police brutality. To them, racism and bigotry were a matter of “hearts and minds,” not power. They maintained an abiding faith in institutions that insisted “the police are honorable, and the courts are just,” Baldwin wrote. The fantasy of innocence was both childish and deadly.

This kind of liberal naïveté comes shrouded in layers of hypocrisy, while Trumpism strides onto stage clutching a bullhorn and wearing a MAGA hat. Glaude considers Trumpism only “the latest betrayal,” the revival of something old and ugly in American politics. He repeatedly invokes what he calls Baldwin’s “nuance and complexity,” but in a state of emergency he concedes that a hard-nosed approach to the election is a necessary first step.

The idea isn’t to return the country to what it was before President Trump; Glaude wants a wholesale re-envisioning, not a complacent restoration. As Baldwin put it in 1980, before Ronald Reagan won the presidential election, explaining the decision to vote for a disappointing Jimmy Carter: “It will be a coldly calculated risk, a means of buying time.”

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