Baldwin’s America: A challenge and a lesson

There are books that leave me so dazzled by the setting and scene and characters I can easily think of them as candidates for “favorite book” when someone asks what my favorite book is. These books don’t discuss craft, but are craft at its finest, moments of pure magic that come together through voice and imagery and emotion.

There are books that teach me and guide me as a writer or an educator, and those books stick with me for different reasons. Often those reasons have more to do with how I view the reality I live in and how I help craft it in my writing. Sometimes they have to do with craft, which is a neat meta trick. I recently completed Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.’s Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, and it is a book that does all these things.

Glaude is the James S. Milton distinguished professor of African American Studies at Princeton University; in this biography and piece of social criticism, he is also a guide for the tumultuous times in which we live. This is fitting, as the book works to unpack the vison of another guide: James Baldwin. Glaude’s mix of Black history, Baldwin and “where do we go from here” thinking makes this book shine brightly from each of its many facets.

I first encountered Baldwin in grad school, through his short story “Sonny’s Blues.” Published in 1957, the story takes readers to Harlem and provides a peek into the life of a teacher and his brother, Sonny, who is a passionate musician, veteran and heroin addict. Reading it in my 20s, the music and the drugs appeared to me as realities that just go hand-in-hand with living in the big city, for anyone.

Of course I was just seeing Sonny’s experience through my own lens; today I know it was music and drugs that spoke to me then. But it is Baldwin’s compassionate treatment of Sonny and the empathy we feel for him and even his judgmental brother that is the hallmark of this story. Today I know that what I saw as part of city life is actually part of a complex history for Black people, a history that is more nuanced than any shallow understanding I could have had in my 20s And Baldwin’s fierce compassion is what I see now, when I engage with him. It’s what I see in “Staggerlee Wonders,” a poem as sharp and biting as a blade.

I read Part I of the poem to students in my Literature of Revolution class, and it gives us so much to discuss: wars, both domestic and foreign, external and internal and those that are not recognized. We get to talk about history, who “the natives” are–who they really are– and how Baldwin’s bite is so carefully crafted here. We also, of course, get to talk about the real life “Stagger Lee” and the violence perpetuated on people like him.

In these contexts, I’ve felt like I have a good understanding of what makes Baldwin’s work so powerful. Its the way he holds his loved ones close and his enemies closer, and how they are one and the same in America. But I am not a scholar of Baldwin, and I only know enough about Harlem and history and Black History to introduce my students to these topics and guide them through it with the voices of the real experts, the writers I draw on, to help lead me. Reading Glaude’s book took me through Black America of the 50s into the 80s, and in doing so, it illustrated white America, too, and the ugliness, hatred and shame that this country has borne since its founding.

Glaude introduced me to Stokely Carmicheal, as I wrote in another post; he introduced me to Dorothy Counts, a 15-year-old girl who tried to end segregation in Charlotte, North Carolina when she was the first black student to integrate into Harding High School in 1957 (same year of “Sonny’s Blues”). There are several other figures and moments vividly detailed in Begin Again, but I think the most powerful comes toward the end of the book, when Glaude goes south to Alabama and visits some of the memorials to fallen civil rights leaders and those who died by lynching. Between Caroline street and Holcombe Street in Montgomery, he finds the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, describes it as “a monument to our dead and to the countrymen who killed them,” and describes his walk into what is sometimes called “The Lynching Memorial.”

As I walked into the memorial, I saw walls featuring text blocks that told the story of the violence…my eyes turned to the Nkyinkyim Installation…a haunting sculptural representation of slaves chained together in agony, defiance, and unimaginable grief. The sculpture stands on the side of the path that leads you up an ascending walkway to the monument, the physical structures that commemorate the dead. With each step you make your way up the hill…you can see lined up across the lawn duplicate monuments that can be claimed by the individiaul counties where the lynchings occurred.

Glaude, Eddie S. Jr, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons For Our Own.

Glaude is overcome by grief as he looks at these 800 monuments, and then again as he focuses on the monuments that list multiple lynchings in one county. He continues with what is for me the most chilling passage of the book.

As I kept walking, the floor slanted downward, but the monuments remained level. Before long their bottoms were above my head. As I looked up at them, it was if I were witnessing bodies swaying from poplar trees–except these were stiff.

He recalls Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and in sharing that moment with him, I am reminded that music and politics come together as complexities of the Black experience in a way I could never know, but a way that Baldwin sought to get at through Sonny.

Glaude continues with the memorial and describes the death sentences on the monuments before him: “One man was murdered for having a photo of a white woman in his hat; another had been falsely accused of peeping at a white woman through a peephole; another refused to buy seed from a white man.”

He concludes the passage by noting the monument from Jackson County Mississippi, his childhood home: Eight names. Eight men lynched. Eight men he’d never heard of until that moment. His own experience of what it is to be born a Black man in the South has suddenly shifted, and readers are able to shift along with him.

For much of this book, Glaude asks what it means to be an American, not just what does it mean to be Black in America, or white in America, but what does it mean to exist in a country bound and also separated by a great lie. He seeks to hold those in power accountable for what they’ve done to fail people of color– Blacks, Latinos and Indigenous populations– but he also asks us to wrestle with how we more forward. And because he wrote this book during Trump’s presidency, he also condemns that excuse of a man and all that “Trumpism” has done to set our country at odds. This book is a collection of anecdotes, quotes and their contextual background, history and hope. But it is also a prescriptive guide to how we now must move forward as a country.

“…[O]ur task, then, is not to save Trump voters–it isn’t to convince them to give up their views that white people out to matter more than others. Our task is to build a world where such a view has no place or quarter to breathe. I am aware that this is a radical, some may even say, dangerous claim. It amounts to “throwing away” a large portion of the country, many of whom are willing to defent their positions with violence. But we cannot give in to these people. We know what the result will be, and I cannot watch another generation of black children bear the burden of that choice.”

Featured image: James Baldwin, featured on the US Embassay & Consulates in Turkey websiteBook