In the weeks following the intense geopolitical events in the United States, Begin Again seems like the perfect antidote to the systemic racism that has plagued the country since its founding. A curious look into the mind of one of the Civil Rights Movement’s most beloved figures, this book offers a different way of seeing and interpreting the actions of society and government that seem at times reluctant, or downright unwilling—to relinquish a way of living that informs a worldview.
Begin Again is neither biography nor literary criticism nor societal commentary. It’s all of those things in one—and that’s what makes the premise so exciting! In it, we learn much about the life of James Baldwin and his inner struggles during particular periods of his life from his Harlem schooldays as an aspiring preacher to his sudden escape to France, Turkey, and back again.
Begin Again is the story of how James Baldwin continually found hope in the idea that one day the United States will put aside the lie of white superiority—that white people matter more—to make room for a more just society. Despite the murders of his friends and contemporaries Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. At the hands of those who wanted to silence the Black freedom movement, Baldwin’s writings and reflections speak at the urgency of casting aside the lie that cripples our democracy and ability to live and love free in the age of authoritarianism and deeply divided partisanship.
I’m fascinated with this book. Truly, blown away with its relevancy, studied care and exploration of Baldwin’s texts and sense of urgency in the post-George Floyd racial reckoning the U.S. and other Western societies are finding themselves at the center of.
Princeton professor Eddie Glaude does an incredible job of melding the present, the history of the Black freedom movement, snippets from Baldwin’s personal life, and his reflections to create a book that seems altogether necessary for the times we’re in now. Not an intellectual or primarily philosophical read, this book sits at the center of forming racial thought and subsequent action. How do we currently think about systemic racism in America? What is the ultimate stem—the crux—of white supremacy that allows it to continue without end? Why do we come so close to change only to have it all crumble soon after? Why does the moral appeal of anti-racism no longer work?
Begin Again seeks to answer all these questions and more, offering a framework for the creation and use of “the value gap” (i.e. the belief that white people matter more than the other people groups in America and society should be reflected as such), and the many ways in which that belief has hidden behind hidden, coded laws and practices spanning from before Baldwin’s day to through the Black freedom movement and into American politics and society after its demise.
As I watched the meld between political institutions, democracy, and white supremacy unfold together with the world this month, I found myself reflecting deeply and absorbing even more urgently the lessons Baldwin increasingly put forward towards the latter end of his life. As a Black woman, Glaude’s curation of select Baldwin passages and refreshing 21st-century commentary felt validating, empowering, and in some cases, incredibly inspiring. I took notes, highlights, shared quotes over many phone calls with friends, and found their words soothed many of our anxious souls in the days past.
Glaude succeeded in perfectly summarizing the constant spectrum Black people frequent between the high hesitant trust and unbridled hope and low decimating depression and national disillusion, taking us from Baldwin’s spectrum variations and the things did believe and cultivated within himself to find hope.
A local bookworm himself, James Baldwin was often criticized for his choice to live outside the States and yet continue writing books that criticized it. The elusive “elsewhere”–Paris for his early, penniless years, and Istanbul later, as a refuge from fame—served as his muse and mental guardian to create distance from the everyday slights and indignities of anti-Black racism and examine the underlying systems that made it possible to thrive. Glaude, his literary wingman, travels across the globe in his footsteps from his home in southern France to Germany to the American South to Harlem and beyond to find, share and discover for himself the clues Baldwin left behind for how we, in this “third Reconstruction”, can finally confront the national trauma of the value gap and live and love beyond it.
The result is a mentally challenging read you won’t soon forget.
Love It or Leave It?
If you’re looking to challenge your thinking and expand your mental development on a topic that to many feel too cerebral and philosophical, this book is for you. Pithy, intellectual but actionable, Begin Again will have you thinking on and seeing American systemic racism in a different light and enable you to easily begin spotting and pointing out the lie and value gap in your own life. My baseline of racial issues has now changed as a result of reading this book, and I now have the language to be able to explain experiences and beliefs I’ve held my entire life as a member of the global Black community.
If you find yourself needing hope, or if you want to understand the politics of systemic racism and how a man with insight into how so many of the Civil Rights Movement’s leaders thought about it, this is your read.