Princeton Prof. on Race Relations: “Our Democracy Is Broken”

This has been a summer of nationwide unrest over racial injustice in America — a field in which Eddie Glaude Jr. is an expert. He chairs the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University and his latest book is titled “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.” Glaude Jr. tells Walter Isaacson what we can learn from Baldwin’s personal struggle.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: And now, of course, to America’s reckoning with racial injustice. Dr. Eddie Glaude Jr. is the chair of Department of African-American Studies at Princeton University. His latest book, “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own,” analyzes the current moment in the context of one of America’s greatest writers. It asks what we can learn from Baldwin’s own struggle. And he tells our Walter Isaacson why America must confront the lies it tells itself about being — quote — “a redeemer nation.”


WALTER ISAACSON: Thanks, Christiane. And, Professor Eddie Glaude, welcome to the show.


ISAACSON: This book is incredibly timely on James Baldwin. And when you started it, you probably did not know how timely it was going to be. Why did you undertake this project?

GLAUDE: Well, in some ways, I had to deal with my own despair and disillusionment. I had — I didn’t believe the country would choose Donald Trump. And then I watched it happen. And then I watched the hyperpartisanship evidence itself in very specific ways and how the ugliness of race and racism were beginning to overwhelm. I had to find resources, Walter, for myself to how to pick up the pieces and begin again, because it looked as if, at least as I sat down to write the book two years ago, as if the company was doing it again, that it was turning its back on the possibility of being otherwise. And I had to find some resources, and Jimmy was that resource.

ISAACSON: Baldwin talks about the temptation of despair, which is what you just raised. How did it help you to prevent yourself from freefalling into despair?

GLAUDE: Well, you know, actually, at one point, he described his despair as elegant despair, elegant despair, that you have to turn to the reality of those you love, the future that you hope for, that you pray for, and you have to figure out a way to replenish, to find the resources in yourself to begin again. And so it was kind of rummaging through what he calls his — the ruins, rummaging through his writing, that I was able to find resources, to put pen to pad, and to write my way out of a kind of despair. So, it was the work, actually. It sounds Carlylean, doesn’t it? It sounds too much…

ISAACSON: But it also sounds difficult. I mean, it sounds like a — he writes of the messiness of our exterior lives reflects the messiness of our interior lives. Was it difficult for you to have to dig into your own emotional life?

GLAUDE: Absolutely. Oh, Baldwin is an exacting companion. He forced me to confront the scaffolding of my own life, as a precondition to say anything about the country. And so I found myself, as I was writing, reaching for my favorite drink, Jameson, over and over and over again, right? And as I was confronting the fact that I’m this vulnerable little boy that — who grew up on the coast of Mississippi, who is constantly struggling with his father, even as our relationship has grown into something much more beautiful, I had to grapple with that beginning. And as I started to do it, Walter, the sentences started to jump a bit more. I became freer and more willing to take risks, because I was actually being truthful with myself, which freed me up to be even more truthful about the country.

ISAACSON: You talk about “No Name in the Street” being a lynchpin in the book, and that was written by Baldwin in reaction to the civil rights movement of the 60s and the fizzling or burning out of it, as a sort of second moral awakening that happened after Reconstruction, but then it ends. It’s been 50 years since that book. Are we due for another moral reawakening?

GLAUDE: It seems we’re right there. And at every moment that there is a kind of reckoning with the contradiction at the heart of this fragile experiment, there is a reassertion of the lie. And we’re experiencing that right now. You think about President Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention and the way in which he narrates history at the end of that speech, virginal lands. It’s as if no contradiction was present in our beginnings. There was this kind of redeemer nation logic that drives, right, the way in he imagines our past. And then you see the memos from the Office of Management and Budget saying no training around racial bias, banning critical race theory, because this is un-American propaganda. So, to confront our contradictions, to confront how those contradictions reside in us, for those folks, represent a kind of anti-American gesture. So it seems that we’re right there. The ugliness — we’re on this racial hamster wheel, as we have always been since the beginning. And now we have to figure out what we’re going to do.

ISAACSON: You say that underlying it all is what you just called the lie. What is the lie?

GLAUDE: Well, the lie is this belief that we’re the shining city on the hill, the redeemer nation, an example of democracy achieved. And we tell the lie in order to hide and obscure what we have actually done. Baldwin writes, in 1964, in this essay entitled “The White Problem,” he says, there’s a fatal flaw at the beginning of the country. And I’m paraphrasing here. He says, there’s a fatal flaw at the beginning of the country, because these Christians who decided they were going to build a democracy also decided to have slaves. And in order to justify the role of these chattel, they had to say that they were not human being, because, if they were not human beings, then no crime would have been committed. And then Baldwin writes this line, which is at the heart of the book. That lie is at the heart of our present problem. So, the lie we have told about black people and their capacity, the lie we have told about white people and their superiority, the lies we tell about what we have done in the name of that superiority, all of that, in some ways, is the scaffolding that protects our supposed innocence. And as Baldwin says in “The Fire Next Time,” the innocence is the crime, right? The innocence is the crime.

ISAACSON: How fundamental is the lie to Trumpism?

GLAUDE: Oh, it’s at its heart. And, Walter, you’re a child of the South. You’re a son of the South, and you’re a son of American history as well. And in those moments when the country is on the precipice of change, when a way of life is unraveling, violence is always on its on its heels. You think about the end of Reconstruction and the assertion of redemption and the Lost Cause, you think about the end of Jim Crow. And each of these moments represent kind of spikes in that horrid ritual, American ritual of lynching. So, here we have the desperation of Trumpism in some way as a kind of death rattle, I hope, of a way of imagining the country, that this is the last gasp of a certain kind of understanding of whiteness as overdetermining, right, our democratic value and commitment — commitments. So, lie is at the heart of it, it seems to me.

ISAACSON: Baldwin, after he wrote “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” wrote “Giovanni’s Room” about being gay, being part of queer culture in America. How important was that to him? And would he be somewhat surprised that — the advances made in being — the civil rights of being gay and being called a queer culture vs. the advances being made because of civil rights and being black?

GLAUDE: Yes. To follow up “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Notes of a Native Son” with “Giovanni’s Room” in the 1950s is an extraordinary act of courage. And Baldwin said he had to tell you — he said, you can’t hold that over my head. I told you. So, it’s a beautiful moment. And when I interviewed Angela Davis for the book, she said, in so many ways, he was out there all by himself. But, at the same time, Baldwin’s sexuality, you know, you love who you love. Love is an extraordinary experience that unsettles, that deepens, that widens your sense of yourself and the world. And you love who you love, whether it’s a man or a woman. And Baldwin wanted to open up that space, right? But he also didn’t want us to get trapped in the categories. So, what did it mean to be gay or queer or straight or — so, these categories can, in some ways, lock you in and constrain you. They could spring the trap. So, in the last interviews published with Quincy Troupe, there is one fellow who is trying to interview him and trying to lock him into a certain understanding about the gay liberation movement, and Baldwin is deconstructing the category. Or when you read “Male Prison,” or his last essay, “Freaks,” there is a sense in which he’s trying to destabilize these categories in order to release us into a certain way of being. But then there’s the exchange, Walter, with Audre Lorde. And Audre Lorde rakes — I mean, takes him to the shed around kind of the patriarchal underpinnings of the understanding of gayness, right? So it’s a complex subject matter to kind of unpack. But I think he would be interested in what we are experiencing today. But he would also be cautious about how we understand the nature of freedom that is being expressed today, if that makes sense.

ISAACSON: You talk about him resisting being locked into categorizations. Being locked into the categorization of being black, to what extent did he see that as a problem?

GLAUDE: Well, he was always concerned about this aspect of black power that he called this mystical blackness. He used a different word, but he called it this mystical blackness. And he said that it springs the trap, because Baldwin wants to insist on a certain level of individuality, right, because he wants to say, the moment that black people start — in one essay in “Black Power,” I think, he says moment black people stop — step outside of the orbit of white people’s expectations, we’re talking revolution. So, this assertion, not of a kind of crude and crass individualism, but an idea of black individuality for Baldwin, becomes this kind of revolutionary act, where we step outside of the stereotypes and we try to find our own voice by sometimes singing off-key. But he wants to make a distinction, I think, between racism and white supremacy and black culture. Right? Racism and white supremacy is horrible. It’s irredeemable. But it doesn’t follow from that the beauty of black cultural life has to be diminished, the way we speak, our language, our — the way — our cuisine, the music, the culture that has been so critical to American life. On the lower frequencies, we speak for you, as Ralph Ellison would say. He doesn’t want to give that up, but he doesn’t want us to get permanently docked at the station by holding onto this notion of blackness that is apart from human experience.

ISAACSON: Your grandmother in Moss Hill, Mississippi, on the Gulf Coast, once said to you when you were angry about something: White people aren’t going to change. Get that through your head. Do you still believe that, and do you think Baldwin believed that?

GLAUDE: Let me unpack it. When she told me when I was an undergrad at Morehouse that she was trying to keep the rage from taking root in my spirit, from dwelling on it, but, today, I think I understand it in this way. Those people who are committed to whiteness, they’re not going to change. But then there are people who happen to be white, whom I love dearly, who are engaging in this ongoing interrogation of how race and white supremacy distorts and disfigures our soul. So, when I say in the book that the idea of white America is irredeemable, what I mean is that there is nothing about the belief that white people matter more than others that can be salvaged. So, when you ask me the question, can white people change, I would say human beings can be changed. But those who are committed to the ideology of whiteness, to where they can’t understand themselves otherwise, well, if they change, it’s up to them. It’s up to them, if that matters.

ISAACSON: After a lot of the moral reckonings, be it Reconstruction and the civil rights movement, and even the Obama era, there has been a backlash and a swingback. Now, as we’re going through the era of Trump, there are people who say, OK, can’t we just get back to an era of calm? Do you think that’s a trap or a danger for us, if we’re just trying to restore an era of calm?

GLAUDE: Absolutely. Absolutely. I’m thinking about Dr. King’s speech in Montgomery after the Selma march. And he says some — and I’m paraphrasing — some want us to go back to normal, to get back to calm. And then he starts listing what was considered normal. And he starts listing all of the horrors of the period that is being called normal. It’s not calm when poor people are dying because they can’t put food on the table and have a decent wage. It’s not normal because police were killing black folk before this moment. That’s not normal. That’s not calm. It’s not calm and normal that the top 1 percent or the top one-tenth percent of the country is extracting resources, while everyday ordinary people like my daddy, who worked his behind off as a letter carrier, busted their behinds to make ends meet, there is nothing normal about that. So, part of what we have to reckon with, I think, Walter, is that our democracy is broken. I think young people know this, and they’re reaching for languages to help them imagine how to fix it. A nostalgia for the broken — a nostalgia for what was in the past is a way of sticking one’s head in the sand, to my mind.

ISAACSON: In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the other shootings, Breonna Taylor and the things we have seen, how do you speak to your son about the moment we’re in?

GLAUDE: Yes. It’s a hard conversation. And I have been having it with him since he was, like, 8 or 9, from — he’s 24, and you just think back to Trayvon and how young he was. Tamir Rice. I remember we were in an airport when he found out that the police officer wasn’t going to be charged, and he was pacing the airport like a caged panther. Or, during the George Floyd moment, and he said he had to go protest in Trenton. And I was like, but COVID, COVID-19. Are you going to — and I played the mama card. You going to jeopardize your mother? And he said: I got to. I have to. So, the conversations are hard, but he’s teaching me now. He’s teaching me what it means to exhibit courage and imagination in this moment. The one thing that I have been trying to do over all of these years, Walter, is to impart to my child the lesson that Baldwin imparted to do me. Whatever you do, how angry you are, how rageful you feel, don’t let hatred take root in your spirit. There is nothing good that could come of it. And so he’s acting, but not from a space of hate, but for a love of justice. So, I’m the student now these days.

ISAACSON: What would Baldwin have us do now?

GLAUDE: You know, I don’t want to exhibit a kind of hubris to anticipate his words. There are 7,000 pages of his words that we can return to. The one thing that I think I have learned from all of these years working and writing and walking with Baldwin in my head is that we have to tell the truth, as much as we can bear and then a little more. We have to bear witness, which means we have to make the suffering real for those who willfully ignore it. So, tell the truth, bear witness, and create the conditions for us to imagine ourselves otherwise.

ISAACSON: Professor Eddie Glaude, my friend, thank you so very much.

GLAUDE: Thank you, Walter. I appreciate you.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane speaks with former National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton about current events. She also speaks with Brendan Byrne about the documentary “Gaza.” Melinda Gates sounds the alarm on what the Gates Foundation calls “mutually exacerbating catastrophes.” Eddie S. Glaude Jr. tells Walter Isaacson that the U.S. must confront the lies it tells itself about being a redeemer nation.