Last night, I finished reading Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. The author, Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., is a Distinguished Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University.
James Baldwin was an extraordinary writer of fiction and nonfiction who had a profound effect on American life for decades—and still does. In tracing Baldwin’s life, works, artistry, and philosophy, Glaude seeks and often finds relevance to our lives in Trump’s America.
Though Baldwin and Glaude’s reactions are those of introspective and societally aware Black men, they are also important for all Americans to hear and ponder.
Baldwin lived through the murders of his friends Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr., and of Malcolm X. But, writes Glaude:
“Even in the darkest moments in his life and in that of the country, Jimmy always believed we could be better than what we are. He also understood that the battle to choose life was fought every day, and imagination was one of his most potent weapons.
“But he had to fight for that insight. Fight against the country’s repeated betrayals. Fight his own rage and sense of despair. And fight for generations yet unborn. It made for a lonely life, but the fight was his choice.”
Though the book is complex, I’m selecting the passages most meaningful to me now.
“We should all remember that we are at once miracles and disasters. Demonizing others isn’t the point. Failing to realize this springs the trap again. Baldwin wants us to imagine ourselves without need for enemies. He wants us to be a new creation, a reflection of a new America.
“This place, as I imagine, would be a country where black children are not born in exile, where they don’t have to endure a thousand cuts and slashes that wound their spirits and require their parents to engage in daily triage to protect their souls.
“A new America, no longer tethered to the value gap, would make it possible for millions of black people like myself to finally feel at home without the concern that the nation’s contradictions might very well drive us mad.
“That unsettling feeling of being ‘in but not of’ this country would be no more. Everyone could rest for a while because we would no longer need the lie to hide our sins. This is the America I imagine coming into being. This is the idea of America that Trumpism has by the throat. What we decide to do in our after times will shape another generation. The choice is that momentous…”
Glaude defines “after times”—a phrase coined by poet Walt Whitman:
“For Whitman, out of the ashes of the Civil War emerged a nation bustling with the energy of commerce, ‘endowed with a vast and more and more appointed body’ but ‘with little or no soul.’ In this context, national rage and fury served as warning signals that were ‘invaluable for after times.’
“The phrase refers, at once, to the disruption and the splintering of old ways of living and the making of a new community after the fall. The after times characterize what was before and what is coming into view.”
Though Glaude speaks of Baldwin’s rage, and his own rage, the rage that came to mind when I started this piece is mine.
It is based on the fact that 17 state attorneys general and 126 US House of Representative members (64% of the House Republican members, including the minority leader) have bought into the biggest lie that this country has experienced—one that threatens our nation more than anything since the Civil War.
I am speaking, of course, of their following the lead of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, under investigation for bribery and abuse of office and apparently shopping for a pardon. Paxton initiated a ridiculous lawsuit appealing to the Supreme Court to overturn the election in four swing states in which the vote for President-elect Biden was heavily dependent on Black Americans.
In other words, these government officials are blatantly seeking to disenfranchise millions of Black Americans.
The Democratic Party is currently the only realistic path that Black Americans have to give their votes power, and President-elect Biden has promised to put his mandate from them into actions. And the Vice President-elect happens to be a Black woman of Indian (immigrant) heritage. Thus, the ongoing Republican suppression of Black voters, begun in the 1960s, has reached a fevered pitch.
The Republicans didn’t succeed at what Trump considered his Supreme Court because their lawsuit was as frivolous as all those preceding—based on no facts, solely on the determination that their actions should return a lawless President to office. The fact that at least 12 of them were elected in states where they wanted the vote nullified didn’t figure in their thinking.
Of course, voter suppression and gerrymandering proceed apace. In the critical forthcoming Georgia elections, the number of voting sites have already been reduced in areas with substantial minority populations, and a number of state legislatures there and elsewhere are readying laws to make vote-by-mail more difficult.
The charges of fraud that allegedly underlie the need for such changes constitute a huge ruse. Note this: DURING THE ELECTION, THERE WERE REPUBLICAN OBSERVERS IN EVERY DISTRICT THROUGHOUT THE US. THEY TURNED UP NOTHING!!
Regardless of how these elected Republicans may rationalize, they know better. There’s undoubtedly also some cowardice, as they fear Trump the bully and his hold on his base. But after the widespread Black Lives Matter demonstrations were joined by a wide swath of all types of Americans, this election demonstrated that change is in the air.
Led by their increasingly unstable standard bearer, these Republicans saw a glimpse of the future. Their response: deliberate vote(r) nullification. The end of democracy. Their only way to hold onto power.
Hence, my disgust. I am trying not to demonize others, but this behavior warrants condemnation.
I recognize that as a white woman, I can never truly feel what it’s like to experience life as a Black American. But I can’t imagine being a part of one generation after another that continues to hope that white America will simply see our Black brothers and sisters as fellow Americans, seeking no more and no less than anyone else. And then once again being disappointed—or worse.
I carry with me the tearful words of Doc Rivers, coach of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, following yet another shooting of an unarmed Black man:
“It’s amazing why we keep loving this country and this country doesn’t love us back.”
How many ordinary Americans are condemning the kind of lawlessness we’re seeing right now—as our fellow citizens (indeed, many white people as well—but predominantly Black)—are once again the object of deliberate discrimination?
Every time racial justice appears to be moving forward—the Reconstruction, post World War II, the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, President Obama’s election—the smackdown comes roaring back. Glaude uses the word “betrayal.” One betrayal after another.
Solid accomplishments fueling promise, followed by a previous Supreme Court ruling that said there was no longer any need for monitoring voter suppression against Black people in various states. The door opened to voter suppression laws. A perpetual pattern.
So I am witnessing the hurt for my fellow Americans of color who have to consistently fight for the right to vote—and even for the right to live peacefully. And I am profoundly grateful that they haven’t given up on what America could/should/must be—for the sake of us all. It’s not their battle: it’s all of ours—especially white Americans.
This should be a time for renewal in our country. We have succeeded against great odds in removing the malevolent force that has come dangerously close to destroying our democracy. We have a President-elect and Vice President-elect who are good, decent, honest people who truly want to curtail the virus, rebuild our economy, and improve life for all Americans.
Yet the opposing party has succumbed to nihilism and seems uninterested in the historic levels of death, joblessness, food insecurity, homelessness that is about to get worse.
And how can we expect Joe Biden to be able to address all these wrongs when so many elected representatives are denying the reality that he was elected, comfortably, with both substantial electoral college and popular vote totals?
These people who have demonstrated their contempt for democracy must be held accountable for their actions so they think twice about what they’re doing to our country. At the very least, they should be censured by the House majority.
I’d like to end on a more hopeful note. We are seeing the last gasps of white supremacists who know their way of life and dominance in our society are drawing to a close. I don’t use the word “supremacists” lightly, but I find no other way to comprehend how lawmakers who took a Constitutional oath can have no problem trying to insist that the legitimate votes of millions of Americans should not count.
I return to Glaude’s book about Baldwin:
“Reading Jimmy until the end leads one to his understanding of the power of love. No matter how vague his invocation of love may be, love remains the one force that transcends the differences that get in the way of our genuinely living together.
“In the end, we cannot hide from each other. When we imprison our fellows in categories that cut off their humanity from our own, we end up imprisoning ourselves. We can’t hide behind the mask either. We have to run toward the trouble that makes us afraid of life.
“We have to choose life, Baldwin repeatedly said. Salvation is found there: in accepting the beauty and ugliness of who we are in our most vulnerable moments in communion with each other. There, in love, a profound mutuality develops and becomes the basis for genuine democratic community where we all can flourish, if we so choose. This was his prayer, and it is my own.”
I greatly admire these sentiments. If James Baldwin and Eddie Glaude can both speak of love, I feel that I should be able to as well. But I’m not there yet. (I also wonder whether Glaude is feeling much love in the face of this Republican attempted heist of our democracy.)
And yet, we have an incoming administration that has promised to address these inequalities. Biden will inevitably try to work across the aisle; it’s his nature and experience. We must hope that the Georgia election will give him a Democratic majority. If not, we must let our legislators know that his priorities—the ones that the majority of Americans voted for—are what we expect them to support.
And we must, perhaps through a Commission, examine all the norms that have protected our fragile democracy and find ways to shore them up.
Emphatically, we must demand passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and ensure that minority voters can freely exercise their franchise. Once and for all. No going backwards. And not giving up when there are setbacks—even major ones like the brush with autocracy we’ve just experienced.
At that point, having reclaimed some of what Joe Biden calls “the soul of America,” we may find ourselves closer to having discussions about love.