Can We Live Up to James Baldwin’s Hope for a Multiracial Democracy?
To make these after times different from the ones Baldwin lived through, White people need to reimagine their Whiteness and their wokeness and how they perform both.
“Unprecedented” in recent years has become sloppy shorthand for “that which White America did not see coming.” Trump’s 2016 presidential win. Inequalities exposed by the pandemic. Black Lives Matter uprisings. “The times” in which we live. White people seem to have a limitless capacity to be surprised by things that history reveals have all manner of precedent.
Begin Again by Eddie S. Glaude Jr. (Crown, 2020), uses the writer James Baldwin’s life and later works to illuminate those precedents and suggest a way forward in spite of them. Glaude refers to our current situation as the “after times,” akin to the periods of White betrayal and Black disillusionment that followed both Reconstruction and the civil rights movement. He looks to Baldwin for lessons on how to respond to the after times without succumbing to despair, and on how to keep faith that all of us (including White people) can be better.
Begin Again is a sermon that uses Baldwin’s words as its sacred text. Don’t worry if, like me, you aren’t particularly well versed in Baldwin. Glaude, who has a Ph.D. in religion, performs exegesis right on the page, grounding lengthy excerpts from Baldwin’s later works, like No Name in the Street, as well as unpublished manuscripts, interviews, and correspondence in historical context, which makes the book easy to follow.
Glaude, a superb educator, starts by explaining “the lie … a broad and powerful architecture of false assumptions” that protects America’s core paradox: In a country founded on ideals of freedom and equality, White people’s lives matter more than anyone else’s. The lie is a malevolent deity that continuously adapts to prioritize Whiteness. Glaude toggles between Baldwin’s timeline and our own, revealing the lie’s many insidious aspects.
Some were entirely new to me. I knew nothing about the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, which helped militarize local police departments and was a response to “white fear over the perceived threat of black violence”—a threat personified by armed Black Panthers who had recently occupied the California legislature. (I couldn’t help but think of White people who did something similar in Michigan in 2020 because they were asked to wear masks—with zero repercussions.) Begin Again even revealed my complicity in the lie. For example, I willingly bought into the triumphalist narrative that Obama’s presidency was the culmination of the civil rights and Black freedom movements. According to Glaude, both movements collapsed.
Glaude—like Baldwin—is most concerned with bearing witness and disrupting the lie, all the while keeping faith that America can be better. We must embrace radical honesty, individually and collectively, and examine how the lie has led us to our current after times.
I was there for that for the first few chapters. Then I started to feel resentful that Glaude was talking to me—and not specifically to the White liberals that he and Baldwin confess their disillusionment with. Black Americans have always told the truth about the lie, even when we have internalized racism or were simply unaware of buried historical facts. From the scars on the backs of the enslaved to the results of our DNA tests, even our bodies have told the truth of White violence against us.
In these post-Obama, post-George-Floyd, mid-pandemic “after times,” Black people continue to tell the truth. And we are exhausted and traumatized by it. On social media, we bear witness to discrimination and brutality practically in real time.
“We must tell the truth till we can no longer bear it,” Baldwin said in a speech at Howard University. But what happens when we can no longer bear it? When is it White Americans’ turn to pick up that cross?
Begin Again doesn’t answer those questions, but it does depict the personal toll the witness-bearing and truth-telling took on Baldwin: rage, attempted suicide, substance use. Baldwin doggedly clung to his vision of a “New Jerusalem,” and it cost him dearly. Glaude gleans inspiration from this unswerving devotion. But I struggle with my mental health, and I found Baldwin’s later life to be a cautionary tale.
At some point uncovering and retelling violence against Black people over and over again just feels like a masochistic deep dive into collective trauma, and I am careful about crossing that line. So when, in chapter six, Glaude discusses a series of brutal murders that took place in Mississippi—one subject of a documentary that followed Baldwin and his brother, David, on a tour of the South—I skimmed the pages rather than let the tortured images penetrate.
Baldwin made space to process his after times by becoming a “transatlantic commuter,” who split his time between three of the world’s most beautiful and culturally significant cities: New York, Paris, and Istanbul. Even those who are “armed with American passports” and, like Baldwin and me, enjoy the immense privilege of living outside of the United States are unlikely to find that it affords the same distance as it did in Baldwin’s day. Social media keeps you tethered to the reality of American racism, and every country has its own persecuted minorities. Before you Blaxit, know that your expat community is more likely to be composed of international corporate execs and even a Trump supporter or two than the intellectual and creative cadre that helped Baldwin process and cope with America’s sins. Of course, most Black Americans can’t just move overseas, especially not now. I felt Glaude’s prescription for them to create distance from racism by leaning into love and family fell a little short.
Begin Again opened with Baldwin, Glaude, and me all in a similar headspace, grappling with “profound disillusionment.” As the book unfolded, I began to see Baldwin as America’s prophet, despised in his own land by the end, with his vision of New Jerusalem lighting him from within. Glaude emerged as a more pastoral figure, rallying a wayward flock back to the path of moral courage. I remained as cynical and disillusioned as I was on page one.
Though he agrees with a defining message in Baldwin’s later works that we should no longer invest ourselves in “saving the souls of white people,” Glaude does not condemn White people or admonish them to save themselves. He never answers his own question: “What do you do when this glimmer of hope fades, and you are left with the belief that white people will never change—that the country, no matter what we do, will remain basically the same?”
I wanted more fire and brimstone. Glaude calls all Americans to tell the truth and imagine a better America. But I’m unwilling to continue mining our violent history for more evidence of a truth that I hold to be self-evident: In America, White lives matter more than mine does. So when Glaude writes, “a moral reckoning is upon us, and we have to decide, once and for all, whether or not we will truly be a multiracial democracy,” I can’t help but think so-called White allies are the ones who need to decide.
To make these after times different from the ones Baldwin lived through, White people need to reimagine their Whiteness and their wokeness and how they perform both. Now that would be unprecedented.