Not knowing much about James Baldwin other than a parade of thought-provoking quotes, I was very interested in reading “Begin Again” by Princeton Professor Eddie S Glaude, Jr. I was not disappointed. The author presented the information in a thoughtfully engaging way.
It’s a marvelous journey through the Civil Rights movement and up and through the Obama and Trump administrations. It taps into the ways Baldwin’s shift into politics injured him personally and professionally. According to Mr. Glaude, Baldwin was trapped somewhere between the pacifism of King and the militancy of X and Angela Davis. And this middle ground brought with it a great deal of criticism from his contemporaries, including Cleaver and Hughes. But Baldwin seemed to be a more transformative man than other gave him credit for being.
The author focuses on the question the country has dealt with from its inception. It snakes its way through Reconstruction, the Civil Rights movement to the Trump administration. All of it pointing towards “appeals to white identity. The symbolism that white people will protect at any cost.”
Much hinges on the supposed “Negro problem.” Freed from bondage, “what will be his place among obvious superiors… how might we might respond to his demands for equality.”
In his early years, Baldwin believed in Thoreau’s call to “awaken the sleeper.” But after the violence and death, the church burnings, the race riots, the assassinations, he came to find there was no such thing as a Negro problem. Trying to reconcile the hate, he concluded that “Black power frightens them. White power doesn’t frighten them… It’s a waste of time to hate them… Hatred, in the end, corrodes the soul.”
What is happening in the country today is a reflection of the country’s oldest battle, “… the disaffected Trump voter … feel left out of an increasingly diverse America.”
Emancipation was more or less a result of a falling out between white men. And the myths and lies of Black America were renewed during Reconstruction as MLK said, “… as white historians tell, Negroes wallowed in corruption, opportunism… stupidity, were wanton evil, and ignorant… freedom was dangerous in the hands of inferior beings.” They didn’t view their own behavior and leadership as being this way, suffering from a superiority complex.
Baldwin often travelled to Paris and Istanbul to find refuge, to avoid being “broken on the wheel of life.” His sexuality was sometimes an issue even amongst his own. He attempted suicide. He battled lifelong depression. But in the end, Baldwin wanted to do something unprecedented. “To create ourselves without finding it necessary to create an enemy.”
I found the book fascinating although I will admit that on a few occasions it seemed slightly repetitious, like we covering the same ground again. Having scant knowledge of Baldwin’s life before reading this book, I’m not sure if there is anything revolutionary or revealing in it. I leave that to others to decide. I think it’s a great leap off point for anyone who seeks a better understanding of Baldwin, his life, his struggles, and the Civil Rights movement as it was and still is today. 5 stars.
ALLEN M WERNER is the author of the epic fantasy series, The Crystal Crux.