In 1965, a reporter for Cumhuriyet, a Turkish daily newspaper, asked the novelist, playwright, and essayist James Baldwin—then living in Istanbul—about his dreams for the future of the United States. Baldwin, in his reply, chose instead to talk about the history of the United States. He explained that the future he imagined already existed in the past of the country, namely in the Reconstruction era. “Black and white people were side by side even in trade unions in the South,” Baldwin said, and continued: “We had Black members in Parliament. … Unfortunately, northern capitalists and southern landlords [aghas] destroyed this unity and order.” In interpreting his country’s present and envisioning its future, Baldwin turned to the past.
Elaborating on the entanglements between the past and present of US politics, Eddie S. Glaude Jr.’s Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own effectively interweaves Baldwin’s time with our own. Recounting his own recent visit to the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, for instance, Glaude notes that visitors to these sites carry with them the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. “When we are surprised to see the reemergence of Klansmen, neo-Nazis, and other white nationalists,” Glaude continues, “we reveal our willful ignorance about how our own choices make them possible.”
Glaude’s forceful use of “we” in this passage is explicitly connected to Baldwin’s much-discussed employment of the pronoun in ambiguous and changing ways over the course of his writings. At the beginning of his career, Baldwin adopted a first-person plural that included his white readers, but gradually embraced elements of the language of Black nationalism. Glaude attributes the shift to Baldwin’s realization that “he could not save white Americans,” who had to “save themselves.” Still, as Glaude points out, Baldwin did not accept “Black identity politics” uncritically and saw it only as “a means to an end.” In other words, he “never gave up on the possibility that all of us could be better.”
The lessons for the contemporary United States are clear for Glaude, who identifies the current “ugly period” in US politics as one in which the “we” of the country is changing for the worse, and is confronting the “ugliness of who we are.” The task becomes “not to save Trump voters,” nor to “convince them to give up their views that white people ought to matter more than others.” Instead, Glaude—channeling Baldwin—makes clear that “our task is to build a world where such a view has no place or quarter to breathe,” while also not “retreat[ing] into the illusions of an easy identity politics.”
While Baldwin provided piercing commentary on the “we” of the country and examined the United States’ present and future by joining them to its past, his life and thinking also included transnational elements. Glaude’s book captures this important dimension of Baldwin’s life by foregrounding the concept of elsewhere and arguing that the years Baldwin spent in France and Turkey afforded him the critical distance from which to contemplate American society and politics. But the boundaries between here and elsewhere were, in fact, porous for Baldwin, who also witnessed and spoke about the workings of global capitalism and imperialism during his years abroad.
In the wake of recent episodes of police brutality targeting Black people and the growing coalition around Black Lives Matter protests across the United States, activists, scholars, and others are once again turning to the writings of Baldwin for insights about racism. The director Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, draws on Baldwin’s Remember This House, an unfinished manuscript about the civil rights era. Peck recently stated that his film “cruelly shortens time and space” between Birmingham in 1963, Ferguson in 2014, and the protests over the death of George Floyd earlier this year.
Recent years have also seen a renewed interest in Baldwin’s personal history and political thought, with the publication of new biographies and edited volumes dedicated to his writings. Despite his observation that “all theories are suspect,” Baldwin is increasingly treated as a political theorist who provided an important and coherent set of reflections about questions of interest to the field. Baldwin’s readers dissect his social criticisms and autobiographical essays and find significant deliberations about democratic thought, race consciousness, violence, freedom, and religion, among others.
Begin Again contributes to this scholarship by engaging with Baldwin as a political thinker, one whose incisive commentary on racism sheds light on our current moment of Donald Trump, “murderous police officers,” and “children in cages with mucus-smeared shirts and soiled pants glaring back at us.” In this compelling reading, Baldwin emerges as a “moral compass” who offers “resources to respond to such dark times” and helps expose the constitutive elements of US society and politics.
Drawing on Baldwin’s insight that “history is literally present in all we do,” Glaude argues that “when we make Trump exceptional, we let ourselves off the hook.” In that sense, the core themes of Baldwin’s writings occasion not only a moral reckoning, but also a historical one.
One such theme Glaude identifies is the “value gap,” whereby “American white lives have always mattered more than others.” Another is “the lie” about US exceptionalism, which has historically erased the trauma inflicted on people of color at home and abroad. This is a lie, Glaude points out, that culminated in the presentation of Barack Obama’s election as a triumphant climax, rather than the beginning of the dreadful “return of the phrase ‘white supremacy.’”
As Baldwin’s explanation to his Turkish interlocutor makes clear, his “moral compass” also led him to offer insights well beyond US borders. Fortunately, then, while Glaude’s Baldwin offers us resources to think through the complicated and ambiguous contours of “we” and “Americanness” in our current moment, he is not confined here in the United States. Unlike most political theorists, who continue to read Baldwin in an exclusively domestic context, Glaude joins scholars in English literature and American studies who have identified the transnational dimensions of the author’s life and writings. Baldwin, after all, was a self-designated “trans-Atlantic commuter” who lived intermittently in France and Turkey over the years. Glaude takes seriously Baldwin’s life elsewhere, noting that it offered an important vantage point that enabled him to continue his commentary on domestic politics.
Glaude opens the book with an account of his own arrival in Heidelberg, Germany, in 2018, during which he witnessed the violent arrest of a Black man at a train station. The fact that he did not have to go on television and comment on what he saw allowed him to relate to Baldwin’s experiences abroad. Heidelberg, he notes, offered him “critical distance” and a “brief refuge from” the daily barrage of racism in the United States, allowing him to start writing his book about Donald Trump, race, and the current state of American politics. He points out that Baldwin, too, “insisted that it was outside of the United States that he came to understand the country more fully.” Paris gave the author “breathing room,” and Istanbul “offered him solace, and the quiet space to get his work done.”
Glaude notes that Baldwin never learned Turkish, arguing that “Istanbul became Baldwin’s elsewhere” and afforded him freedom, even if momentarily, “from the American lie.” For Glaude, the elsewhere is that “physical or metaphorical place that affords the space to breathe, to refuse adjustment and accommodation to the demands of society, and to live apart, if just for a time, from the deadly assumptions that threaten to smother.” Citing an image from the short film Another Place, which Baldwin videotaped with photographer Sedat Pakay in Istanbul in 1970, Glaude notes, “We must try as best as we can to find the space, however fleeting, that makes possible the utter joy expressed in Jimmy’s face on the balcony looking out on Taksim Square.”
In passages like this, Glaude’s elsewhere runs the risk of becoming nowhere, a faraway, empty spot that exists merely to provide relief to the distant traveler. The inequalities and oppressions of Istanbul and Paris are erased as they are transformed, in Glaude’s narrative, into insular and apolitical locations that enabled Baldwin to find relief from the suffocating racism of the United States.
The recent recovery of Baldwin as a political theorist who speaks to our current moment is an important step in shortening the gap between the then and The now of U.S. politics and society.
Toward the end of his chapter that details Baldwin’s life abroad, however, Glaude acknowledges the possibility of connectivity, noting that “an elsewhere can and must be found here.” It should be possible to cultivate the space to breathe “at the margins of society” and to rest in “a community of love” in the United States. This is an important caveat, with Glaude opening up the possibility of blurring the distinction between here and elsewhere. But it is worth noting that Baldwin himself went further than Glaude in undoing the easy separation between the two. In his conversation with Pakay and in other interviews he gave the Turkish press throughout the 1960s, Baldwin increasingly commented on the entanglements of the global core and periphery as a result of the dynamics of capitalism, colonialism, and empire.
As American studies scholar Magdalena Zaborowska has argued, Baldwin came to recognize US imperial power during his time in Turkey, where his transnational perspective began to crystallize. During his first visit to the country, for instance, he informed his editor that “the whole somber question of America’s role in the world today stared at me in a new and inescapable way.” In an interview with journalist Ida Lewis in 1970, he described the country as a “satellite on the Russian border,” adding: “That’s something to watch. You learn about the brutality and the power of the Western world. You’re living with people whom nobody cares about, who are bounced like a tennis ball between the great powers. Not that I wasn’t previously aware of the cynicism of power politics and foreign aid, but it was a revelation to see it functioning every day in that sort of a theatre.”
Baldwin told Lewis that there were dangers to “being an expatriate,” since he might not be “responsible for Turkish society.” This was not a place where his “social obligations could be discharged.” But he used his interviews in Turkey as a platform to provide commentaries on the history of US racism, his experiences with the civil rights struggle, and his disappointments with the Kennedy presidency.
Baldwin thus abandoned his earlier participation in the language of US exceptionalism, which was on display in essays like “Princes and Power,” and his writings and interviews became more attuned to the plight of Palestinians, Algerians, and Vietnamese struggling for independence, as well as Kurdish and other exploited groups in Turkey. In No Name in the Street, which he completed in Turkey, he also addressed questions of domestic and global political economy, underscoring similarities between the “‘anti-poverty’ programs in the American ghetto” and “‘foreign aid’ in the ‘underdeveloped’ nations.” “What America is doing within her borders,” he wrote, “she is doing around the world.”
The recent recovery of James Baldwin as a political theorist who speaks to our current moment is an important step in shortening the gap between the then and the now of US politics and society. As a significant contribution to this scholarship, Begin Again honors Baldwin’s own insight that “history is never the past, everyone is always acting out history.”
Glaude’s discerning reflections on the overlapping of here and elsewhere can also point the way toward new venues of research, in which Baldwin’s transnational travels and engagements would appear not as a mere footnote to his biography, but as one of the crucial features of his political thought.
Perhaps for Baldwin, elsewhere was not just a distant and insulated harbor from which he theorized or a passive site that enabled him to write in peace about the internal ugliness of US politics. It was also a place where he encountered the problem of empire, and a location where he actively tried to offer a different portrayal of the United States through his reflections on the past and his aspirations for the future.
This article was commissioned by Joanne Randa Nucho.
Featured image: James Baldwin in Holland in 1974. Dutch National Archives / Wikimedia Commons