James Baldwin: Witnessing in Dark Times

Jamil W. Drake on Eddie S. Glaude

On May 16, 1969, James Baldwin appeared as a guest on the Dick Cavett Show. Live on ABC television. Cavett set the tone for the discussion by concentrating on black people and hope. Such a discussion captured the contradictions of the moment after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Cavett asked, “Why aren’t the Negroes optimistic?” Cavett’s question about optimism, (a word he used interchangeably with “hope” and “moderation”) was to gauge Baldwin’s perspective about the Black Power movement, or as the talk show host characterized it, “the ones who want to burn it down, demolish it, or the ones who totally [have] given up.” After establishing that the host was referring to H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael, Baldwin explained that Black Power was nothing new in American history. He noted that Black Power extended back to the days of slavery. Baldwin turned Cavett’s question about the black militancy (or, the “figures who frighten white America the most”) into a critique of the nation. The American public’s reactions to Black Power said more about the nation than about Carmichael and Brown: “When the republic acted as they did to the linking of the words power and black, it is a confession of what the country has done with its [white] power.”

Eddie S. Glaude Jr.Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. New York. Crown, 2020. Pp. 272. Hardcover $12.69

Baldwin’s empathy with the younger generations reflected his profound doubt of the possibilities that the nation could ever turn away from its commitments to white supremacy. He had already articulated his profound disillusionment with white American liberalism that was partly responsible for his popularity in the literary world by the early to mid-1950s. His empathy with Black Power and disillusionment with white liberalism was on full display in his discussion with Cavett’s old professor, Paul Weiss, a Yale University philosopher, who was also a guest on the evening’s program.

In response to Weiss’ claim that Baldwin exaggerated racial categories and obstacles at the expense of his own achievements, Baldwin listed evidences of state-sanctioned white supremacy in churches, real estate, unions, and public schools. Then, Baldwin intensely shot back at the philosopher: “Now this is the evidence and you want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my woman, my children on some idealism which you assure me exists in America that I have never seen.”

In his latest book, Begin Again, Princeton University professor and MSNBC commentator Eddie Glaude retrieves this Baldwin who appeared on the Cavett show from the rubble of American history. Begin Again is a beautifully written and thought-provoking text, as Glaude treats Baldwin not only as an important critic and artist of his own time, but also as a guiding light for our present moment. Glaude presents us with a Baldwin who is grappling with the nation’s “reassertion that America is, and will always be a white republic” after the Civil Rights movement.

This “reassertion” was part and parcel of the emerging neoconservative (and neoliberal) forces in the wake of the movement that culminated in the Reagan revolution (a revolution that appealed to liberal Democrats as well). After the legislative victories of the Civil Rights movement, the nation “doubled-down” on its commitments to the “value gap” that was best evidenced in the “reactionary conservatism” that accelerated police violence, legitimation of state murder, expansion of the carceral state, and abject poverty in predominantly black urban cities. By the seventies, according to Glaude, Baldwin had confronted the “frightening truth: that despite the sacrifices and costs of the black freedom struggle, the country remained profoundly racist and, no matter its proclamations to the contrary, white America was comfortable with that fact.”

Begin Again alerts us to the “aftertimes” that framed the backdrop of “Jimmy’s” work and life. Borrowing the term from Walt Whitman, Glaude deploys “aftertimes” to signal the “collapse of the Civil Rights struggle” that intensified Baldwin’s rage, depression, and despair, and profoundly impacted his writing.

This collapse saw the proliferation of the political and religious right networks and post-welfare liberal Democrats that generated an endless cycle of betrayals of the Civil Rights victories, analogous to the collapse of the “first” Reconstruction. Therefore, Baldwin saw the Black Power Movement as a “response and, a justifiable one at that, to the aftertimes.” The Baldwin in the aftertimes is a far one from the early writer of Go Tell It On the Mountain, Amen Corner, and Notes of a Native Son, works that had catapulted him into literary stardom by the mid-fifties. By this time, Baldwin had abandoned his attempt to save white America. Glaude further notes that his “rage was no longer tempered by his faith in the possibility that American could change.” He realized that the price of the country’s refusal to heed his prophecy had been too high for him and black people in the aftertimes.

Begin Again also challenges criticism that Baldwin began to receive in 1964 and that intensified in the aftertimes of the late sixties and early seventies. Critics took his support of the Black Power movement as an exchange of an artistic vision for a mess of political pottage. Mario Puzo, Albert Murray, and other critics felt that Baldwin had fallen prey to protest or “propagandist literature” (almost resembling Baldwin’s own criticism of Richard Wright and others in the social realist tradition). According to Glaude, these critics were more at odds with Baldwin’s politics than with his art, and overlooked the importance of his social commentary that had been dramatically shaped by the aftertimes.

But more importantly, Glaude’s Baldwin does not succumb to the temptations of rage, hatred, and despair. We see a writer who triumphed over “one of the darkest periods of his life” to “begin again” and recommit himself to witnessing in dark times. Amid national betrayal and its detrimental consequences, Baldwin never relinquished hope in a “New Jerusalem.” As Baldwin told Cavett in 1969: “I am still alive, there is breath in me, I will never give up.”

“Hope,” Baldwin told Ebony a year later, “is invented everyday.” And hope is a strange thing in Baldwin’s body of work and black politics in general, especially regarding democracy. Glaude is attuned to the strangeness of hope in African-American politics, citing W.E.B. Du Bois’ elegy to his first-born son: “hope not hopeless, but unhopeful.” Glaude’s Begin Again shows that Baldwin never lost his faith in the democratic possibilities of a “New Jerusalem” in America.

Begin Again is not a biography, history, or literary criticism in a formal sense. Rather, Glaude invites his reader to think with “Jimmy,” precisely because he provides moral resources for our own aftertimes. Like Baldwin’s fears of the post-civil rights era, Glaude is thinking with Baldwin in light of the aftertimes of the election of Donald Trump. Trump did not emerge as an outlier. Rather, he represents one of the endless vicious cycles of betrayals in American history, another “reassertion” of the country’s abiding faith in the value-gap. To engage Baldwin in light of the so-called “Trumpism” phenomenon is a way for Glaude to confront his own moral exhaustion, rage, disappointment, and despair.

Here, Eddie Glaude finds a kindred spirit in the American writer’s moral vision of the artist. James Baldwin rededicated himself to being a witness to the disappointment and traumas of black people, in particular, in the aftertimes. Moreover, the aftertimes also jolted him to leverage his artistic vision to “re-member” and re-narrate what happened in the human rights struggle. Baldwin’s re-memory of the Civil Rights struggle was a way to make sense of the historical and political forces that conditioned the aftertimes.

Glaude makes the case that Baldwin’s 1972 No Name in the Street clearly reveals the writer’s perspective on the moral commitments of the artist. No Name in the Street shows a writer “giving language to the reality of loss” and “form to the traumas” endured by people fighting for multiracial democracy. According to Glaude, No Name was Baldwin’s effort to articulate his grief, pain, and sorrow in the narration of his “journey from the heights of the civil rights movement to the lows of Dr. King’s murder and the uncertainty of the aftertimes.” No Name “shifts from the past to the present” as the author struggled to re-member the death, violence, and traumas endured by King and the people.

Baldwin’s commitment to bearing witness by remembering the Civil Rights struggle informs his commitments to expose the “American lie” in the aftertimes. The American lie, according to Glaude, “is a mechanism that allows, and has always allowed, America to avoid facing the truth about its unjust treatment of black people and how it deforms the soul of the country.”

The American lie—the myth of innocence and exceptionalism—only feeds the “value-gap.” We learn that the lie is as “American as apple pie.” Begin Again therefore seeks to bring Baldwin’s commitment to revising American history to light. Baldwin’s wants to remember the photo of the intense stare of fifteen-year-old Dorothy Heights integrating Harding High School in Charlotte, the bullet wounds of the pierced the bodies of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin King, and other traumatic memories that trouble the nation’s incorporation of the Civil Rights movement into a narrative of exceptionalism and inevitable progress. Thus, Eddie Glaude sees Baldwin’s moral vision of the artist as one of many resources for our own times.

Glaude seizes on the Baldwinian view of the “artist as witness” to confirm his and our own responsibilities to “[m]ake suffering real and force the world to pay attention to it.” Adopting the view of Baldwin’s history, Glaude resists “exceptionalizing” Donald Trump, which only ignores the unjust treatment and suffering of black and brown folks before his presidency. Additionally, his view of history, as intimately tied to remembering traumas and suffering, disrupts the narrative that cast Barack Obama as the fulfillment of the Civil Rights movement. Obama’s “ascension” only replicates the myth that, Glaude argues, movements like Black Lives Matter (and, I would add, Occupy Wall Street) exposed. The frameworks designed to highlight a “working-class,” such as J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, and critique so-called “identity-politics” also refashion the American lie that perpetuates the “value gaps.”

By contrast, our reflections on the traumas and suffering in history accounts for the aftertimes and consequently challenges progressive-linear narratives baked in the American lie. It forces the nation to account for its role in the continuing the traumas and suffering of American history for the sake of reimagine itself anew. Through Baldwin, Glaude wants the nation to tell new stories, not lies, to work towards a “New America.” Like Baldwin’s limited “we” in his vision of the “New Jerusalem,” Glaude’s “New America” sits alongside the reality that Trump supporters and many white people will never relinquish their commitments to white supremacy. And he is absolutely right. From Baldwin, we learn that we cannot appeal to those who refuse to forego their commitments to white supremacy. An engagement with Baldwin shows us that our hope for a New America rests in how we retell history and be steadfast in bearing witness to the endless betrayals of the past to account for our own aftertimes.

Begin Again shows us that history is not merely an academic exercise. Baldwin believed that the way the nation understood and narrated its past had consequences for its present and future. The fact that the nation willfully forgot about its historical past “corrupted any genuine understanding of the present.” An engagement with Baldwin shows us that our hope for a New America rests in how we retell history and be steadfast in bearing witness to the endless betrayals of the past to account for our own aftertimes.

According to Glaude, Baldwin “believed that the after times required that we look back in order to understand the choices we’ve made that have brought us to the moment of crisis.” Moreover, Baldwin’s “New Jerusalem” was only made possible by confronting the trauma and consequences of history that were responsible for the present reality. This confrontation is necessary to foster a “different understanding” for the sake of “creating the conditions for a new beginning for the country.” This “new beginning” from a “serious encounter with the past” captures the meaning of the title of the book, and this encounter births a New Jerusalem that affirms the humanity of all human beings.

As Baldwin wrote in The Evidence of Things Not Seen in 1985:

When I speak of doing one’s first work….I’m
Referring to the movement of the human soul, in
Crisis, which, then, is forced to reexamine the depth
From which it comes in order to strike water from the
Rock of inheritance.

Like Baldwin, Glaude insists that the country take a self-inventory to generate a “third founding” in the nation. Such an honest self-inventory of the past rejects the illusions of myths. Writing before the 2020 presidential election, Glaude challenges the nation not to just remove Trump from office, but to also resist the calls to revert back to normalcy, anticipated by the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris office (with a Democratic House and Senate). Normalcy only reproduces the lie that ignored the value gap that prevailed long before Trump’s presidency. Glaude shows us through Baldwin that to be a witness is an extremely tall order with high demands and risks: “[t]o bear witness in the aftertimes is hard on the soul.” Thus, witnessing is never divorced from interrogating our own sorrows, pain, insecurities, and disappointments that corrode our own souls.

Begin Again brings the readers’ attention to the Baldwinian perspective that “self-reflection is a precondition for social criticism.” Glaude invites us to see how Baldwin’s work brilliantly showed the interconnection of the self, history, and society. Baldwin courageously confronted his own scars from the value gap, and we have to find the courage to confront honestly the lies that rest in us if we are to confront and change the lies that confound the world.

Glaude’s Baldwin shows us the moral gravity of our moment, reminding us that our collective salvation resides in our willingness to expose lies, to courageously confront traumas, and to free ourselves from the racial categories that suffocate our humanity and tarnish our policies. Baldwin interpreted this freedom as an act of love that is important to reimaging democracy. Indeed, our hour is dark. I can only hear a ninety-three year old W.E.B. Du Bois as he was about to leave the U.S. to be a citizen in Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana: “Chin up, and fight on, but realize that American Negroes can’t win.”

Help my unbelief.

Jamil Drake is Assistant Professor of African American Religious History at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of To Know the Soul of a People: Religion, Race, and the Making of Southern Folk (Oxford University Press).