Dr. Eddie Glaude on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time

This past Wednesday at 7 PM, Chair of the Princeton University Department of African American Studies and James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr. spoke to the School community through Zoom to discuss James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Lawrenceville’s all-school summer reading.

This past Wednesday at 7 PM, Chair of the Princeton University Department of African American Studies and James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr. spoke to the School community through Zoom to discuss James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Lawrenceville’s all-school summer reading. The meeting was facilitated by Religion & Philosophy Teacher Nuri Friedlander.

An accomplished author, Glaude has published numerous books, including Initiative in Blue, Democracy in Black, and his most recent book, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.

The conversation began with a discussion of Glaude’s most recent book. Reflecting on Baldwin’s influence on him and why he decided to write about Baldwin, Glaude said, “Baldwin is an exacting companion because he believes that the examined life is not worth living...the messiness of the world that we inhabit is actually a reflection of the messiness in our interior lives,” said Glaude.

Glaude mentioned that in graduate school, he was “afraid to read into Baldwin’s words too deeply” because he knew the kinds of self-reflective questions he was going to ask about him, and he knew that he would have to lean out of his comfort zone. Using the writing of writer Ralph Ellison as an example, he explained, “When I read Ellison with my white colleagues, I didn’t have to manage their emotions. When I read Baldwin with my white colleagues, cheeks would turn read and heads would tilt. I would have to navigate on dealing with their emotions as well as my own.”

Praising Baldwin’s writing style, Glaude said, “He occupies the genre of the essay. He is a master of it. Such a draw allows your eyes to wander, to meander. The difficult thing when writing is figuring out, ‘how do you make your way back?’, but I think that he truly is a master in that genre.”

Glaude then shifted the conversation to discussing a common theme in both his book and The Fire Next Time: the lies that America tells itself. “America has to lie to itself about what it has done, and lie about what we have done as a nation to black people. The lie is not only what is being said about black people. The lie is also what is being said about the nation in relation to these black people,” said Glaude.

He then discussed how Baldwin urges readers to look within themselves and to challenge what they know. “Baldwin is constantly suggesting that our reality, our presence, our experiences, and the life that we live constitutes a challenge to mirror America’s self-imagining...If we assert our presence into the American story, suddenly that story looks radically different than the one that we tell ourselves,” said Glaude.

According to Glaude, the heart of Baldwin’s work was a notion of radical inversion. Baldwin believed that “the real problem was this idea that because you’re white, you ought to be valued more than others. The real problem was the distribution of advantage and disadvantage on the basis of the belief that some people ought to be valued more than others because of the color of their skin.”

Explaining how we are currently in a moment of “moral reckoning” in the 21st century, Glaude reflected, “America is like Neverland, no one grows up, no one takes responsibility, and no one takes account. Baldwin is insisting in The Fire Next Time that we grow up.”

Glaude believed that Baldwin emphasized the idea of loving one another. “Baldwin is consistent about love, but love for him is nuanced...For him, love takes on all three elements of the Greek love: unconditional love, friendship, and sensual love...We must all take part in a society like lovers,” he said.

To conclude the conversation, he left Lawrentians with a series of reflection questions about living in our current day and age: “Who do you take yourself to be? Who do you aspire to be? These are the questions we have to ask ourselves individually, but we also have to ask ourselves as a country, who do we take ourselves to be? To answer that question, we have to be honest about what we’ve done. Who do we aspire to be? To answer that question, we have to look our ghastly failures squarely in the face,” Glaude noted.

Reflecting on the lecture, Amelie Wickham ’22 said, “The lecture was really interesting to watch, and Professor Glaude brought up some really important points on love, accountability, and forgiveness.”

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