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Eddie Glaude Jr. On His New Book And What America Can Learn From James Baldwin

NOEL KING, HOST:

Princeton professor Eddie Glaude Jr. first read James Baldwin seriously in graduate school. Truthfully, he preferred Ralph Ellison. Baldwin's writing scorched. It was truthful, but so angry it made Glaude's white classmates uncomfortable, which made him uncomfortable.

EDDIE GLAUDE JR: When we read Baldwin, all hell would break loose. You know, not only was I having to deal with what he was doing to me on the inside, I had to deal with them.

KING: James Baldwin wrote that the United States was built on a lie, that we were a free and equal society. And that lie allowed white Americans to think they were innocent. Baldwin too was interested in the experiences of Black Americans beyond the trauma that racism caused them.

GLAUDE: There is a sense in which Baldwin is rejecting a kind of social realist understanding of Black life. He's not reducing us to our oppression. He wants to say that we can't think about Black life as just simply deficit.

KING: Years after those early encounters with Baldwin's writing in grad school, Glaude started to love his work and understand it differently. He's written a new book. "Begin Again: James Baldwin's America And Its Urgent Lessons For Our Own." We talked about Baldwin's two roles, artist and activist.

GLAUDE: Even though he was often accused of compromising his art with politics or by politics, Baldwin always understood himself as a witness, that his charge was to make real the suffering. He helped raise money for. Dr. King's organization, SCLC. According to one biographer, he joined CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC. So he was active. He was present at Selma. And he wrote brilliantly and powerfully and beautifully about these experiences. So he was an intimate part of the movement, but, again, I think Baldwin always felt a bit misfitted, if that makes sense.

KING: Two things seem to happen simultaneously. He starts writing a different kind of work, and the critical establishment decides they don't like what he's writing or how he's writing. Can you talk about the evolution, how he went from critical darling to artist who seems untrusted by progressive critics?

GLAUDE: I try to foreshadow it with this conversation that he's having with Howard students in 1963. And many of these students, these are members of this organization at Howard University called the Nonviolent Action Group, NAG. And these students, they were part of this nonviolent effort to change the South. They risked their lives. They were the shock troops of the nonviolent movement. These are the same students who ended up shouting Black Power. These are the same students whose eyes darkened because they had experienced the brutality of the country's betrayal, of the country's refusal to change. And so as Baldwin saw, as Jimmy saw these young folk - right? - fall not into despair or pessimism, but their rage and anger at the country's refusal to change because they've lost so - they lost so many people. Not only their lives, but their friends went mad. Some just simply fell to pieces.

Baldwin took seriously Black Power. He understood its rationale. These were our children, he would say. And he was trying to figure out how to bear witness under different material conditions, how to find language to account for what he was seeing. And so he was trying to find a form. And then, of course, by 1968, they killed the apostle of love, they assassinated Dr. King. And Jimmy fell to pieces, and he had to figure out how to pull himself and pull us back together.

KING: I'm not sure how bluntly you say it in the book. I believe it's - you're quite direct. Eldridge Cleaver did not like that James Baldwin was a queer man. The leaders of this sort of Christian civil rights movement, Dr. King also were uncomfortable with that. There is a sense here that James Baldwin simply can't win. And it's very frustrating. And people keep sort of shoving him off to the outside and saying, you're one of us, but you're also not.

GLAUDE: Yeah. This is why I use the word misfitted, you know.

KING: Yeah.

GLAUDE: He's betwixt and between. You know, he's at the height of his fame post '63, and he can't go home like he used to. Because once you become, you know, the iconic figure, there's a distance between James Baldwin and the man, Jimmy. So there's the fame, there's the shift in the political context - right? - as the civil rights movement collapses and Black Power emerges. And there's this internecine fight - battle that's going on. And Baldwin is betwixt and between. But, you know, he's an artist at the end of the day. He's just trying to bear witness. And what is he trying to bear witness to? What we need to do in order to be otherwise.

At the end of the day, Baldwin sees beyond the particular ideologies, I think, and he's urging us at the heart of the matter to be honest with ourselves, to confront the scaffolding of lies and not to fall into the trap of the idolatry of race. And speaking that truth, no matter who is in front of you, can be lonely at times.

KING: The doubts that people raised about him, was he an artist or was he a polemicist? That, for any artist, must be painful, really painful. Did he ever doubt himself as an artist, though?

GLAUDE: I don't think so. You know, I don't want to be arrogant and suggest that I can really explain what was in his head. There were moments of doubt. You can see it in his letters to Lorraine Hansberry as he is asking her to, you know, to push a play that he's working on or an idea, but he never stopped being an artist. I mean, I find it silly. I think it's, you know, that might be a bit too dismissive, Noel. But I think in so many ways it's just - people just disagreed with his political choices and his aesthetic choices. They wanted to move on. The country had turned its back on us and people were adjusting. Baldwin never adjusted. He continued to sing off-key and people were unsettled by that fact.

But he was still experimenting with form, with language. Black English became more important as a tool for his artistic work. As I write in the book, "No Name In The Street" is this amazing experiment at the level of form. How do you write a book that reflects trauma and wound? And I think it's an amazing text that informs and shapes Toni Morrison's "Beloved," for example. He never became a polemicist. He was always an artist.

KING: Eddie Glaude Jr.'s book is called "Begin Again: James Baldwin's America And Its Urgent Lessons For Our Own." Eddie, thank you so much for being with us. And congratulations on a wonderful book.

GLAUDE: Thank you so much. I appreciate you.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERBIE HANDCOCK'S "MAIDEN VOYAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.