The Ethical Economy of James Baldwin

Princeton Professor Eddie S. Glaude Explores James Baldwin in a new biogrphy of one of the nation’s greatest essayist. (Photo Credit: Time Magazine)

In Begin Again, James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, Eddie S. Glaude Jr. is, at times, as seething as Shango, the African Orisha deity known for his apoplectic tendencies. During other intervals, within this superbly wrought biography on Baldwin — considered one of the greatest American racial polemicists — Glaude can be as critical as Kant, sapiently quoting at will Whitman and Morrison, Du Bois and Emerson, Jesus and Joyce with elan and extended passage runs that are as ineluctably astute as they are of pure elegance.

In the parlance of the black church, from which Glaude emerged in Moss Point, Mississippi, Begin Again, is an earnest “testimony” of a middle-aged Princeton professor who has drank deeply of Baldwin’s dazzling, encompassing oeuvre. Glaude confesses that reading Baldwin has allowed him to examine the terrain of own his life, which begun in Southern obscurity and, as elliptically conveyed in the book, with a sense of deep paternal trepidation.

Baldwin similarly produced in Glaude a sense of angst so that for decades he avoided him, preferring instead, Ralph Ellison, the author of Invisible Man. He writes in the book’s introduction: “[Baldwin] told the truth, but anger dripped from the page. When I read The Fire Next Time, I could not reconcile his rage with his talk of love. It was like Dr. King meets Henry James meets Malcolm X meets Freud. Baldwin was too personal.”

Glaude finds all kinds of treasure among Baldwin’s “ruins” that truly illuminate our country’s ongoing democratic project. He discerns the importance of democracy and dire need to maintain the type of civilian sovereignty that are supported by an objective press as well as equal human and fair voting rights in the nation. He also has much to say about the dispiriting age of Trump: — its degraded moral economy, its ostentatious, twisted civic contradictions. The current president piques Glaude to the point of exclaiming: “And each time I see and hear Donald Trump, I try to beat back rage and hold myself together.”

James Baldwin’s prose advanced him to celebrity status as a racial commentator in the 1960s and 1970s (Photo Credit: The New York Times).

In this modestly-sized volume, which stands partly as literary criticism of Baldwin’s corpus and partly as narrative bildungsroman for Glaude himself, we note the author’s attempts at serving as a generational bridge. And rightly so, Glaude is one of the nation’s sparkling black intellectuals in the mode of Cornel West, his mentor. He is bent toward explicating the detail of our harrowing times — the American wherein the political waters are demonstrably poisoned, and where there remains much racial detrius.

But, it is just not the present hour over which the Cassandra of race and politics holds malevolent sway. Glaude’s ushers us back to Baldwin’s unhappy complaints about America — to slavery time and into the unbearable precincts of Jim Crow, where moral monsters were conceived and weened on the mother’s milk of the dragons of white supremacy. Baldwin reached his literary powers during President Richard Nixon’s administration, a nadir for the nation. Glaude, and we, have clearly suffered through Trump’s tempestous tenure. That is what makes this work an apt analogy about about our racial past, and about that which we must continue to grapple, reconcile and repair. It is also about how our past is not quite the past, as Faulkner has said.

Here is the type of rage that existed in Baldwin’s book of essays, No Name in the Street: “To be an Afro-American, or an American Black, is to be in the situation, intolerably exaggerated, of all those who have ever found themselves part of a civilization, which they could in no wise honorably defend — which they were compelled, indeed, endlessly to attack and condemn — and who yet spoke out of the most compassionate love, hoping to make the kingdom new, to make it honorable and worthy of life.”

While executing this book, Glaude finds all kinds of treasure that illuminate our country’s ongoing democratic project. He also has much to say about the dispiriting age of Trump, its degraded moral economy, its ostentatious civic contradictions.

Begin Again can easily be taken as a forum wherein Glaude poses as a Jeremiah — weeping among the unholy about the transgressions of the collected nation: “The American idea is indeed in trouble. It should be. We have told ourselves a story that secures our virtue and protects us from our vices…our darker angels reign,” says Glaude.

Yet, this book is much more than this. It is, in many ways an exhortation, which instead, urges that Americans — of all colors, and creeds, indeed, of all conceivable cultural dispositions — must take heed of the impending destruction, a final racial implosion much worst than fire Baldwin predicted so many years ago. Glaude’s call to us is to find, at all possible costs, common ground and passage toward human flourishing.

He winds down his argument in the book lugubriously, as Baldwin would: “Americans must walk through the ruins, toward the terror and fear, and lay bare the trauma that we all carry with us. So much of American culture and politics today is bound up with the banal fact of racism in our daily lives and our willful refusal to acknowledge who benefits and suffers from it. Underneath it all is the lie that corrupts American life.”

Like Baldwin, Glaude calls for an American baptism as both matters of judgement and renewal, as matters that are deathly real and metaphor — a primal reckoning of sorts. Let’s hope we heed the call in the midst of our wilderness.

Kevin Peterson is founder of the New Democracy Coalition and Convener of the Fanueil Hall Race and Reconciliation Project. He is a social and cultural critic.

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