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New book explores how ordinary Americans can be the heroes of democracy


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: On our Bookshelf tonight, a call to action for everyday Americans to reclaim their political destinies from the heroes of our past and present.

Princeton University Professor Eddie Glaude Jr. argues that is what's needed to secure a just and democratic future for America. It's a case he makes in his new book, "We Are the Leaders We Have Been Looking For."

And he joins us now.

Eddie, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Always good to see you.

Eddie Glaude Jr., Author, "We Are the Leaders We Have Been Looking For": It's always good to see you. It's a delight.

Amna Nawaz: So this is -- it's a beautiful book, let me say. It tackles some very big ideas.

But in reading it, it's also fair to say, I think there's an urgency to your writing in this book. Tell me about that. What's driving that?

Eddie Glaude Jr.: Well, I think we have outsourced our responsibility for democracy too long, for too long. We have outsourced it to politicians. We have outsourced it to so-called community leaders, to so-called prophets and heroes, when, in fact, we need to take responsibility for it.

And if we don't take responsibility for democracy in this moment -- and we heard a lot of that in the last segment. If we don't do it in this moment, we may very well lose it. So I'm saying that, instead of thinking -- looking to an election, looking to politicians, we need to look to ourselves.

And in order to do that, we're going to have to really examine who we take ourselves to be.

Amna Nawaz: We are the leaders we have been looking for, you write in the book. We are the prophets we have been looking for. This is an absolute call to action.

So what is it that you want to see everyday Americans do differently?

Eddie Glaude Jr.: You know, I think there's a through line in the book, throughout the book. And it might sound a bit cliche, you know?

And that is to say, if we're going to be the leaders that we have been looking for, we're going to have to be better people. And if we're going to be better people, we need to help make a more just and better world, because that world, the world as it's currently organized, values selfishness, it values greed, it gives license to hatred and grievance and fears, right?

So part of what we have to do is to do the hard work of becoming better people. And, Amna, I get this from James Baldwin. Baldwin said -- and I'm paraphrasing him here -- that the messiness of the world is in part a reflection of the messiness of our interior lives. We have to deal with our own wounds, so that we can open ourselves up to the beauty and brilliance of other people, so that we can be committed to justice.

So I'm making a claim that reaching for higher forms of excellence in pursuit of a more just world is a radical politics.

Amna Nawaz: You write about what you call the heroes, the prophets, the leaders of, in particular, Black democratic, with a small-D, life, people like Baldwin, people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

And I guess I want to ask, isn't it sort of human nature to turn people into heroes and heroines, to aspire to some kind of ideal? Is there something that undermines our democratic life with that?

Eddie Glaude Jr.: You know, I think it's absolutely -- it's ordinary. It makes sense that people will find in the lives and witness of other folk examples, heroes, people that they look up to.

But the thing I'm worried about, and I think democracy should always be concerned about, is when prophets who are authorized by voices or authority outside of our form of life or heroes who become larger than life, we end up giving ourselves over to them.

And the moment we start following people, giving ourselves over to them, we stop working on ourselves. We stop doing the hard work of becoming better people. Of course, they're heroes. But you know what heroes are, are examples.

Ralph Waldo Emerson says, great people come to us for even greater people to follow. We look to great people, so that they can demonstrate the characteristics that we could if we choose, if we choose to, demonstrate in our own lives.

Amna Nawaz: You write about Ella Baker, in particular, and sometimes referred to as the mother of the civil rights movement. And you also refer to what you call her -- quote -- "democratic perfectionism."

What does that mean? Why is she an important person to highlight here?

Eddie Glaude Jr.: She's such an important figure. Without her, the 20th century Black freedom movement wouldn't make sense.

In the 1940s, she was a field secretary for the NAACP. She helped -- she was the first executive director for the SCLC, King's organization, Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And there's a reason why those students who participated in the student sit-ins in the 1960s, in 1960, organized themselves at Shaw University. That was Ms. Baker's alma mater.

She had this fundamental orientation, Amna, that she wanted to expand who mattered in the demos. So those Black sharecroppers, those folks who fall in the cracks and crevices of our democracy, she wanted to lift them up, but she also wanted to create a politics where they could understand their own power.

She says, a strong people do not need strong leaders. And so the objective is to create indigenous leadership. Those of us who are working close to the ground in our communities must understand our own power. And that's what organizing is all about, not to helicopter in, but to actually engage in the hard work on the ground of creating the conditions of building community with others.

Amna Nawaz: Eddie, you reexamine some of your own views in this and some of your past essays and speeches as well.

So I have to ask, where does the election of America's first Black president, the election of Barack Obama, fit into all of this?

Eddie Glaude Jr.: You know, I cannot deny the symbolic significance of President Obama's election. My son was raised, grew up with a Black family in the White House. And I can't begin to give an account of how meaningful that was for him and for me.

But I was annoyed that Obama's presidency was seen and often interpreted as the eventuation, the outcome of the civil rights movement, that this was what the Black freedom struggle aspired to do. And that is to put a Black man in the White House.

The quest for justice goes beyond elections. It goes beyond just mere representation. So I look back with some trepidation that how did Obama's presidency narrow what is considered legitimate forms of Black dissent? How did it constrain Black politics?

I'm trying to open that up in my own individual way in this book.

Amna Nawaz: You talk about the search and the effort to become a better person. You turn that lens on yourself as well.

Eddie Glaude Jr.: Yes.

Amna Nawaz: And there are some intensely personal parts of this book,one in which you write about what you call your own primordial wound, one caused by your father.

That moment really stuck with me. And I just wonder why you felt compelled to include that in the book.

Eddie Glaude Jr.: You know, oftentimes, we hide our vulnerabilities.

The idea of being a leader is that you don't show that you're broken. King -- Dr. King wouldn't smoke in public. You know, we don't know the biographies of Reverend Jesse Jackson or we know only glimpses of Sharpton, right, of Reverend Sharpton.

What I wanted to do is to kind of deal with my own wounds, to understand how brokenness shapes me, shapes my own voice. And my father sits at the heart of that. I love my father. We have a wonderful relationship today, but that's a journey. He's scared to living daylights out of me as a kid.

He could just look at me, and I would cry at times. And so, by virtue of my fear, the fear that he deposited in my gut, I thought I was a coward. And so I reached for my heroes. I reached for Malcolm X. I needed a form of masculinity in the face of what felt like being emasculated daily in some ways.

But you understand the beauty in brokenness. We're not reaching for wholeness. We have to understand the goal that fills the cracks. And that's what I'm trying to do in that chapter, yes.

Amna Nawaz: There's a message of hope. And you say that yours "is an abiding faith in the capacity of everyday, ordinary people to be otherwise and in our ability, no matter the evils that threaten to overwhelm, to fight for a more just world."

In the minute or so I have left, Eddie, where do you derive that faith?

Eddie Glaude Jr.: In human beings, in us.

I come out of a tradition where it didn't seem possible for us to imagine ourselves in the grandest of terms. We were nothing but slaves, according to some. But, oh, my God, did we make life swing, Duke Ellington-style.

We gave the world the blues. We gave space and time our rhythm in so many ways. So the -- human beings can be disastrous and cruel. But you know what? We can also be miracles. And, my God, do we need miracles today.

Amna Nawaz: That's Professor Eddie Glaude, Jr., author of the new book "We Are the Leaders We Have Been Looking For."

Eddie, always a pleasure. Thank you.

Eddie Glaude Jr.: Thank you so much. I appreciate you.

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