The Only Answer to the Country’s Troubles

10 minute read
Glaude's new book is We Are the Leaders We Have Been Looking For. He is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor at Princeton University, and also the author of Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul and the New York Times bestselling Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own

My soul looks back and wonders. The details are not hard to remember, at least some of them aren’t. They haunt and somewhere lodged in the cracks and crevices of the memories are indications of what was to come. Past as prologue, I guess, or as prophecy.

I have avoided returning to these lectures for over a decade now. Perhaps “the troubles” of the intervening years have corrupted my attention. So much has happened since those three days at Harvard in September of 2011. In between then and now, the horrors of this country and of our times pressed in. The excitement of the Obama years waned as the bodies piled up like the images in an Alexander Gardner Civil War photograph. Police killed black people at an alarming rate. Americans witnessed only a fraction of it on video, but far more than we could handle. Some of the images have stayed in my head even when newer horrors nestled up beside them.

The Tea Party ran John Boehner and Paul Ryan out of the halls of Congress. White supremacist organizations became increasingly dangerous. They rebranded themselves as the Alt-right and, like a virus, infected the body politic with a more virulent and shrewd strain of a familiar and native disease. They made themselves known in Charlottesville as they marched and shouted, “Jews will not replace us,” and left Heather Heyer dead in the street. More death would follow in El Paso and in Buffalo. Fear and panic grabbed hold of the country as demographic data revealed the “browning of America,” and white people, at least those who felt they could be nothing but white, clung to their gods and longed for the days when people who looked like me knew their place. The so-called racial reckoning sparked by protests around police killings waned as white grievance and fears intensified. Donald Trump was at the center of it all, but he was not the cause. This was the ugly underside of the United States. Trump simply turned the country over so that all could see the shit hidden underneath.

I suspect now, looking back, that this particular line of inquiry was about something more than the white backlash, false prophets, and the state of Black politics. It was, in part, about me. And I suspect, if I am to be honest, this looking back is part of the ongoing work of gathering the broken pieces that I am. I needed to find my feet. Grief and bitter disappointment – the noise and whip of the whirlwind – had caused me to lose my bearings.


At the end of Imani Perry’s extraordinary book, Breathe: A Letter to My Sons, she describes her love of Easter, from the sacrifice of Lent to the passions of the cross and Resurrection. This confession comes on the heels of a beautiful account of the challenges her boys will face in a world such as ours as well as her gentle and loving effort to hand over to them the beauty and power of their inheritances. She recalls singing the hymn, “Up from the Grave He Arose,” on Easter Sunday:

He arose, with a mighty triumph over his foes.

He arose a victor from the dark domain,

and he lives forever with his saints to reign.

Perry’s account of the victory of Easter is the culmination of all that she wants to give to her boys: a kind of resilience and triumphant grit, an inheritance that equips them to face the storms, because, as James Baldwin said, the storms are always coming.

She whispers to her sons, who are no longer excited about Easter baskets and dressing in seersucker and linen on special Sunday mornings, that “I will keep taking you [to mass] because I know you will need it even if not precisely in this way: something in the wake of all this death; the eternal spring.”  The intimacy and intensity of the passage reminds me of that moment in Baldwin’s essay, “Nothing Personal,”

I have been, as the song says, ‘buked and scorned and I know that I always will be. But, my God, in that darkness, which was the lot of my ancestors and my own state, what a mighty fire burned! In that darkness of rape and degradation, that fine, flying froth and mist of blood, through all that terror and in all that helplessness, a living soul moved and refused to die….

She gives her babies the armor of love.

The confrontation with the ugliness and evils of our world, and the madness that results, demand something of us. Something more. Something rooted in a heritage that belongs to all of us: that eternal spring. This is not a guarantee that all will be well; that in the end darkness will give way to light. Spring always comes. So does winter.  But Perry guides the eyes of her sons, and her readers, not only to what was and is, but to what is possible, to the as-yet, and that imagining becomes the basis for a different kind of orientation to the world, what she calls a revolutionary possibility. We are more than our circumstances. We are more than what the world says about us.  Just look at how we got over and fly!

Mine 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. That faith isn’t naïve or a fantastical evasion of the ugliness of human beings. It reflects my willingness to run ahead of the evidence, to see beyond the limit conditions of my current experience, and to ready myself to act on behalf of something not yet in existence. It is also part of my inheritance: a faith bequeathed to me by those unknown souls who survived the absurdity of the American project when they could have easily chosen death.

Americans find themselves, and there is no reasonable way to deny this, in a moment of profound crisis. The country is changing, and the substance of that transformation is not clear. Americans are divided and those divisions go well beyond ideological differences. They cut to the marrow of the bone. Too often we see each other as enemies. Disagreement is saturated with contempt. Mutuality drowns in the bitterness of our public discourse. The sense of common purpose and public good has been thrown into the trash bin as we huddle in our silos. Race shadows it all. Great replacement theory, panic and terror around demographic shifts, assaults on voting rights and affirmative action, bitter debates about American history. We find ourselves living among men and women, once again, mad with the fever of a distorted view of liberty and willing to throw away this entire experiment in democracy as they cling to their racial fantasies. Hubris clogs the nation’s throat.

The answer to the troubles in this country, as it has always been, rests with the willingness of everyday people to fight for democracy. Not to outsource that struggle to so-called prophets and heroes but with the realization that the salvation of democracy itself requires, in part, “the creation of personal attitudes in individual human beings” that affirm the dignity and standing of all people. It requires that we understand that democratic flourishing cannot be in John Dewey’s words “separated from the individual attitudes so deep-seated as to constitute character.”We must be the kinds of people democracies require.

Hatred gums up things up, gums us up. From the beginning, this has been so. It blocks the way towards others. It straitjackets the imagination and places us behind iron bars. I find that insight in the tradition, rightly understood, that Perry commends to her babies – the insight that blooms in spring. Baldwin wrote in “In Search of a Majority,” that “[t]o be with God is really to be involved with some enormous, overwhelming desire, and joy, and power which you cannot control, which controls you. I conceive of my own life as a journey toward something I do not understand, which in the going toward, makes me better.”

It is “in the going toward” that salvation can be found. That imaginative leap, which allows us to see beyond ourselves and to reach for another. To be vulnerable, to tend and to love, to rip off the mask that blinds us to the beauty of the human being right in front of us. To recognize the distorting and disfiguring effect of hatred and fear, and the exacting power of love.

No matter how vague the invocation of love may be, it remains the one force that transcends the differences that get in the way of our genuinely living together. In one of his last essays, “To Crush a Serpent” (1987), Baldwin recounts his journey with and through religion and, along the way, casts aside the hypocrisy of the white evangelicalism of organizations like the Moral Majority. He knows what it means to predicate a sense of self and national identity upon hatreds, fears, and grievances. The flames of such fears and the scapegoats that must bear the brunt of the hate are meant “to exorcise the terrors of the mob.” As Baldwin wrote,

those ladders to fire—the burning of the witch, the heretic, the Jew, the nigger, the faggot—have always failed to redeem, or even to change in any way whatever, the mob. They merely…force their connection on the only plain on which the mob can meet: the charred bones connect its members and give them reason to speak to one another, for the charred bones are the sum total of their individual self-hatred, externalized. The burning or lynching or torturing gives them something to talk about. They dare no other subject, certainly not the forbidden subject of the bloodstained self. They dare not trust one another.

But the kind of salvation I’m talking about is not found in such tricky magic. Nor is it in some Heavenly bye and bye. “Salvation is not flight from the wrath of God,” Baldwin declares, “it is accepting and reciprocating the love of God. Salvation is not separation. It is the beginning of the union with all that is or has been or will ever be.” It is found in the going toward, evident in the politics of tending, and love is it carriage.

The rantings of a romantic madman? Perhaps. But this is the gift I have found in the tradition that is the wind beneath my wings. The world remains cruel, and the United States is especially maddening. But the words of the late Toni Morrison seem more resonant than ever:

Of course there is cruelty. Cruelty is a mystery. But if we see the world as one long brutal game, then we bump into another mystery, the mystery of beauty, of light, the canary that sings on the skull….Unless all ages and all races of man have been deluded…there seems to be such a thing as grace, such a thing as beauty, such a thing as harmony…all wholly free and available to us.

Now fly!

Adapted from Eddie Glaude's new book, We Are the Leaders We've Been Looking For

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