Begin Again focuses on James Baldwin, and I have not read enough of Baldwin, or recently enough, to appreciate it as well as I would wish. I read Baldwin (and Richard Wright) long ago, sitting in high school classes that bored me, reading because they did not. From Wright and Baldwin and Malcolm X and Piri Thomas, I learned of race and a world beyond my small, white home town. They opened doors to the world for me.
While I read only the early Baldwin, Glaude introduces the long sweep of his thought and career, illuminating crucial moments of crisis and failure in our national history:
“Throughout this country’s history, from the Revolutionary period to Reconstruction to the black freedom movement of the mid-twentieth century, the United States has faced moments of crisis in which the country might emerge otherwise, moments when the idea of white America itself could finally be put aside. In each instance the country chose to remain exactly what it was: a racist nation that claimed to be democratic. These were and are moments of national betrayal, in which the commitments of democracy are shunted off to the side to make way for, and to safely secure, a more fundamental commitment to race.”
This moment is another such inflection point, he says:
“The future isn’t set, but we can say, based on our current condition, that the future will damn sure be hard. Trump has revealed the ugly underside of America. And the work that needs to be done to defeat the forces that strangle American democracy will be painful and will require, as Baldwin said, “an overhauling of all that gave us our identity.” We have to muster the moral strength to reimagine America. We have to risk everything now, or a choice will be made that will plunge another generation into that unique American darkness caused by the lie.”
Reading “Begin Again” during this January of insurrection and darkness was not easy. The need for reimagining America, the task of reclaiming America, the risks and dangers that face us have never seemed greater than now.