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  • Writer's pictureDeborah A. Wilcox, PhD

Recapturing James Baldwin and the Moral Crisis at the Heart of American Democracy

I had the distinct opportunity to witness and listen to one of the nation’s most prominent scholars, Dr. Eddie Glaude Jr. -- an author, political commentator, public intellectual, and passionate educator -- who examines the complex dynamics of the American experience though the literature and lens of the unbounding prolific author and social justice scholar James Baldwin. This experience was sponsored by the Taft Lecture Series, that honors the community leadership of Charlie P. Taft II, who was known for integrating sacred and civic values. As the son of U.S. President William Howard Taft, he devoted his life to public service -- as both a member of city council and mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio, and as the 40-year warden of Christ Church (now Christ Church Cathedral) and co-founder of the World Council of Churches.

Dr. Glaude’s address was threaded through his new book Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and It’s Urgent Lessons for Our Own. He challenged all of us to examine our collective American conscience, “not to posit the greatness of America, but to establish the ground upon which to imagine the country anew.”

In recapturing James Baldwin’s insights and critical inquiry on American democracy he spoke about America’s aversion to history and how the stories the country told itself about its past corrupted any genuine understanding of the present. “In the effort to deny from whence we came,” Baldwin declared, “we’ve had to make up a series of myths about it.”

Dr. Glaude quoted Baldwin’s admonition as it related to confronting the historical lies America has told itself about democracy and being the shining city on the hill or redeemer nation and that our story should begin with those who sought to make real the promise of this democracy and put aside the fairy tales and illusions of America and recast the idea of perfecting the Union not as a guarantee of our goodness but a declaration of the ongoing work to address injustice in our midst.

What brings tears to my eyes, stated Dr. Glaude, is Baldwin’s call to America to reimagine the nation: To create ourselves without finding it necessary to create an enemy. We need an America where becoming white is no longer the price of the ticket. Instead, we should set out to imagine the country in the full light of its diversity and with an honest recognition of our sins and confronting our national trauma, if we are to shake loose from this moral crisis of deception and embrace the truths about the historical traumas of lynching (i.e., Lynching Memorial), cultural genocide and white supremacy.

In his closing remarks Dr. Glaude communicated Baldwin’s preface as it were his last will and testament:

We are living in a world in which everybody and everything is interdependent. It is not white, this world. It is not black either. The future of this world depends on everyone in this room. And that future depends on to what extent and by what means we liberate ourselves from a vocabulary which now cannot bear the weight of reality. Liberation from languages and categories that box us in requires that we tap the source of it all, free ourselves of the lie, and start this whole damn thing over.

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