Within the past several years I have found myself becoming more and more familiar with the life and legacy of James Baldwin (1924-1987). And I have come to realize that while he is widely appreciated as an author, he is at the same time, underrated as a voice of reason with regards to the country he called home. Curiously, Baldwin spent many years of his life in Europe, finding solace and residency in France and Turkey. However, his life outside of the United States allowed him to view America from the eyes of a foreigner. That position gave him a unique opportunity to view America through the lens of a microscope where all of its social ills were readily visible. In his time he was seen as a trouble maker and rabble rouser due to his outspokenness and sadly because of his sexual orientation. But to focus on his frank dialogue and homosexuality would be misjudgment of his true genius. Baldwin possessed an uncanny ability to dissect American society and highlight where the nation was going wrong. Today America is at a crossroads with a looming presidential election in a nation fiercely divided and deeply polarized. Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. takes another look at James Baldwin, who comes back to life as a voice of reason during which are certainly difficult times.
While the book is about Baldwin, it is not a biography of his life. Readers who are in search of a thorough account of his from start to finish might enjoy David Leeming’s David Leeming: A Biography, which is an excellent read and a fitting biography. Glaude takes a different approach to Baldwin’s legacy and although the book is shorter than I would have like, contained within is a thought provoking discussion of race in America. A possible knee-jerk reaction might be to write Baldwin off as a race baiter who always complained about America. However, Baldwin always made it clear that he loved his home country. In fact, one of his more famous quotes is:
“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually“
To be fair, Baldwin never said at any time that he held any hatred towards America. And even when he died in December, 1987 while in France, the United States was still his home. Glaude’s goal here is take a look at Baldwin’s thoughts and apply them to the current day social and political climate in America. If we pay close attention, we can see clearly that Baldwin was ahead of his time and warned America repeatedly of what we are seeing today. While reading the book, a section regarding Malcolm X (1925-1965) jumped out at me and caused me to sit in deep thought. Malcolm who was a close friend of Baldwin and is buried at the same cemetery remarked: “Malcolm X, in town by happenstance, dropped in to hear Jimmy hold forth. “Whenever I hear that this little brother is going to speak in any town where I am,” he said, “I always make a point of going to listen, because I learn something”. As far as I know, there were very few people for whom Malcolm X would put off all prior engagements to see at a speaker’s podium. The quote shows the influence Baldwin had over even the most prominent of civil rights figures.
As Glaude tells the story, he also relates his own movements as he researched the book which included a visit to the Deep South and even the ruins of what was Baldwin’s home in France. He also went as far to visit Baldwin’s grave at Ferncliff cemetery. Quite frankly, he left no stone unturned in his quest to understand Baldwin’s evolution as writer and social activist. When he died, James Baldwin left behind many lessons for us to learn from. Glaude has taken these lessons and applied them to his focus on Donald J. Trump and the polarization of America. The truth that he reveals is what we all need to hear but I am afraid that both supporters of Trump and his opponents may overlook the author’s points as the battle between the left and right continues to intensify in all of its ugliness.
The author sets the tone with a simple premise: America is built on a lie. That idea is driven home in a short few words: “the willingness of so many of our fellows to toss aside any semblance of commitment to democracy—to embrace cruel and hateful policies—exposes the idea of America as an outright lie“. However, exactly what that lie is shows how long many of us have been living in denial either intentionally or unwittingly. The idea is certainly disheartening to think about but if we digest Glaude’s words, we can see that he not only makes an excellent point but also that there is truth to his words. Further, his goal is not the destruction or repudiation of America but an honest attempt to allow us as a nation to see how we have reached this point and can “begin again”. Baldwin called it a New Jerusalem. Personally, I do not have a name for it but would simply say that we are in a position to make true change in this country but only if we pay attention to our complicated and sometimes violent past.
One of the beautiful parts of the book is that while we revisit Baldwin’s words, we also revisit crucial times in American history viewed through the late author’s eyes. Undoubtedly, these events helped shaped the thoughts and literary works that Baldwin composed during his life. Even while in France, America was never far from his mind and he would return on occasion to see what was becoming of the country that was his home. He had taken part in and supported the Civil Rights Movement only to see so many friends die early deaths. The elections of Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) and Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) reaffirmed Baldwin’s view that America was turning its back on true change. And with November right around the corner, Americans now face a similar situation. The question is where do we go from here?
I admit that the book may cause some readers to feel ill at ease but that is exactly the point. Glaude does not want us to feel complacent. In fact, it is the opposite. The warning bells have been sounded and this book is an attempt to catch our attention so that we can see how history is once again attempting to repeat itself. Former President Barack Obama once said that what we see today did not start with Donald Trump. It certainly goes much deeper than that. The author lays much of it at the feet of Reagan, from whom Trump seems to have taken many of his tactics. Of course Reagan had more finesses and was less crass than Trump but equally effective at reaching his desired base of voters. And the “us versus them” mentality continues to erode at our social fabric. One of Glaude’s strongest statements is the following which we should all stop to consider:
“In the end, Americans will have to decide whether or not this country will remain racist. To make that decision, we will have to avoid the trap of placing the burden of our national sins on the shoulders of Donald Trump. We need to look inward. Trump is us. Or better, Trump is you.”
I honestly believe that this book should be more widely read before this year’s election. Whether you are Republican, Democrat or even Independent, there are many lessons to be learned here. The goal here is not to shame anyone or “save white people” as Baldwin once said during the turbulent 1960s. Glaude believes as do I that it will take all of us to improve America and correct its ills. However, if we continue to deny its past then we can never correct course. Baldwin was keenly aware of this and for that reason he was constantly reminding America of where it was going wrong with the hope that it would take a new path towards his vision of a New Jerusalem. With his words we can be the change we wish to see in this country and understand how addressing our past can truly improve our future.