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The ‘white problem’ ... Baldwin’s writings spark a timely and absorbing engagement with American history
In 2018, two years after the “disastrous” 2016 US presidential election, Eddie Glaude Jr, professor of African American Studies at Princeton, made a pilgrimage to the house in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, in the south of France, where James Baldwin had lived for almost two decades, and which was now being knocked down to make way for luxury flats. Glaude, who has taught Baldwin for many years, had come in search of any surviving traces of the writer’s refuge, and found most of it crumbling to dust. Only the writing room remained, “exposed for the sun to beat down on its side”. Against the backdrop of bulldozers and the noise of sledgehammers, it “looked like the excavation of an ancient ruin”, and called to mind “what Baldwin saw in the latter part of his life in the United States … decay and wreckage alongside greed and selfishness”. It became the impetus for Glaude to undertake an excavation of his own.
He resolved to engage deeply with Baldwin’s work, to try to think “with” him, in order to interrogate “how an insidious view of race, in the form of Trumpism, continues to frustrate any effort to ‘achieve our country’”, and then to write about it. The result is Begin Again, a book that is perfect for Baldwin aficionados or anyone experiencing staggering disbelief at America’s state of disarray and trying to make sense of it. What sets this account apart is that Glaude understands how Baldwin’s writing becomes a pathway for one’s own thoughts; he’s able to synthesise the novelist’s work in a way that transcends summation or homage and becomes instead an act of breathtaking literary assimilation that acquires its own generative power.
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