James Baldwin grew disillusioned by the failure of the civil rights movement to force America to confront its lies about race. In our own moment, when that confrontation feels more urgently needed than ever, what can we learn from his struggle? Begin Again follows Baldwin's life and work, to bear witness to the difficult truth of race in America today.
... a potent meditation on the enduring legacy of Baldwin’s life and thought, a New York Times bestseller and one of a number of titles that have spoken to the soul of public outrage at George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis last May ... 'What we are living through,' Glaude writes of the current context, 'even with our cellphone cameras, is not unlike what Baldwin and so many others dealt with as the black freedom movement collapsed with the ascent of the Reagan revolution.' Baldwin’s response demonstrates the resilience that’s needed to be a witness through an era of despair ... Glaude challenges this convention with conviction. He invites us with him to 'read Baldwin to the end' and reveals a writer, not spent, but rather illuminating the path beyond despair – the work of a saint if ever there was such a thing. This witness through the dark times, which Glaude argues are upon us once again, is, he says, the true measure of Baldwin’s greatness: an enduring testament to his love and the belief that the US can and must be something more than it is.
Glaude is more explicit about looking to Baldwin not just for perspective and inspiration but for instruction and guidance ... Glaude is up to something bigger than his own summary allowed. Where a number of writers have paid ample tribute to Baldwin’s essays from the late ’50s and early ’60s, during the early years of the civil rights movement, Glaude finds energy and even solace in the later nonfiction that charted Baldwin’s disillusionment ... Even if you don’t agree with Glaude’s interpretations, you’ll find yourself productively arguing with them. He parses, he pronounces, he cajoles. He spurs you to revisit Baldwin’s work yourself ... Glaude’s defense of Baldwin’s trajectory is more cultural than literary. He imputes a political discomfort to critiques like Als’s that isn’t entirely fair, but he writes ardently and protectively ... The idea isn’t to return the country to what it was before President Trump; Glaude wants a wholesale re-envisioning, not a complacent restoration.
The strength of Glaude’s book depends on how well he makes the case that Baldwin speaks directly to our times ... is, in fact, two different books. The first takes the reader on a deeply researched tour of Baldwin’s essays and actions from the mid-1960s forward ... [Glaude's] penetrating book does an excellent job of defending the power and beauty of Baldwin’s later intellectual projects and explicating them for scholars and lay readers alike, quoting extensively (as one must) from Baldwin’s words for full effect ... But Glaude also has a second project, which is to join in the recent trend of repurposing Baldwin for the present, prompted by 'the election of Donald Trump and the ugliness that consumed my country' ... Glaude freely admits that 'in 2016, I could not bring myself to vote for Hillary Clinton' given the failure of the Democratic Party to adopt policies specifically targeted at black Americans...Begin Again represents Glaude’s personal coming to grips with that grave error of judgment. As such, it contains moments of profound insight ... Glaude seems to deny any significance to the election and tenure of Barack Obama, largely because he did not enact Glaude’s preferred public policies. Indeed, he curtly dismisses Obama in biting asides sprinkled throughout the book — an odd choice given that Baldwin’s moral power derived in part from his ability to find common ground between ’60s-era black figures who sometimes launched vitriolic attacks against one another ... Of course, it would be foolhardy to expect an American president to reject the core national narrative, even a false one, but at the same time there seems to be a gaping absence in this book. If we are in the after times, then what was the before? Begin Again is a groundbreaking and informative guide to Baldwin and his era, even as it remains an uncertain map of our own.