Public Media Arts Hub

Why James Baldwin's work is attracting renewed attention in 2020


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

Judy Woodruff: August 2 would have been literary icon James Baldwin's 96th birthday.

The resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests across the world has created renewed interest in his work.

A new book, "Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own," explores Baldwin's ideas for these times.

Amna Nawaz recently spoke to author and Princeton Professor Eddie Glaude Jr.

This is part of our ongoing arts and culture series, "Canvas."

Eddie Glaude Jr.: My own despair, my own rage, grappling with the fact that the country seemingly was doubling down on its darkness, on its ugly commitments, and trying to figure out, how could I muster the energy to push the rock back up the hill, and watching it take root in my own son.

And it seemed to me that I needed to find a way to get it on the page.

But I have been reading Jimmy Baldwin for -- I call him Jimmy because he's like a personal friend after all of these years. I have been reading him for about 30 years, grappling with his ideas.

And then, finally, I turned to him to help me think about this current moment. So, this is a book written with him about -- about the darkness of our times, yes.

Amna Nawaz: We should point out this wasn't an academic exercise. It was a physical one. You made a pilgrimage of sorts to different sites that were important through Baldwin's life.

Where did you go, and why?

Eddie Glaude Jr.: I took a quick flight to Nice in order to go visit Baldwin's home in Saint-Paul de Vence.

And it's being turned into -- it's being destroyed and turned into expensive condos. Even Baldwin's place of respite couldn't survive capitalism. And so I make a pilgrimage to his home. And it looked like an archaeological site.

It was beautiful at once and tragic in another sense. And it kind of gave me a sense of the frame of how to talk about Baldwin now, in a moment where even his place of quiet has now been turned into a place of greed and opulence, as it were.

Amna Nawaz: Well, there's been an undeniable surge in interest in popular culture across the board in his work.

You think back a few years, there was the 2016 documentary by Raoul Peck. There was his epic debate on race against William Buckley that, even 55 years later, sees resonance online. There's still millions of views.

James Baldwin: The country, which is your birthplace, has not, in its whole system a reality, evolved any place for you.

Why do you think that is? Why do you think so many people, especially in recent years, are turning to James Baldwin?

Eddie Glaude Jr.: Well, I think he's the premier, probably the best interpreter of American democracy and race we have ever produced.

He seems to me -- I think he's the inheritor of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He takes Emerson across the tracks and introduces him to the blues, as it were.

But I also think Baldwin queers American politics. He queers black politics. Here you have this fragile queer black man who spoke boldly and truthfully to the times, to the circumstances of black folk, and circumstances of all Americans, actually.

And you have a group of people. Black Lives Matter, its model of leadership was very different. It was queer. It resisted the kind of pulpit focus. And so you saw all over in 2014 and, even up to today, you saw quotes of Jimmy -- from Jimmy Baldwin everywhere.

"Ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy of justice." "Innocence is the crime." All of this is all over the place.

And I think it has something to do with Baldwin's prescience and the fact that he models a different way of doing this work, it seems to me.

Amna Nawaz: You write about how Baldwin struggled with his own grief, his own trauma, his own, as you say, profound disillusionment with the moral state of our country.

We are talking here as thousands of people are marching for black lives across the country, as we, as a country, are reckoning with our own history and who deserves to stand in monument in our city squares.

What do you think those urgent lessons, as you put it, what do you think those urgent lessons are from Baldwin that we can apply to today and right now?

Eddie Glaude Jr.: We have to tell the truth of what we have done, and of what -- and how what we have done has made us monstrous, because we have denied it, right?

We have to really understand what this idea that some people, because of the color of their skin, that white people ought to be valued more than others, how that has destroyed and disfigured and distorted our character, right, and how it has, in some ways, shall we say, undermined democracy in all of its form.

And so, by telling the truth, confronting it honestly, it opens us up to being different, to being otherwise.

And so Baldwin wants us to confront the scaffolding of lies and illusions that provide us comfort and safety.

Amna Nawaz: The book, again, is "Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own."

The author is Eddie Glaude Jr.

Eddie, thanks so much for being with us. Always good to talk to you.

Eddie Glaude Jr.: Always good to talk to you. Take care, and thank you.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.