The Lie at the Heart of America with Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. by David McConeghy
Podcast with Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. (18 Jan 2021).
Interviewed by David McConeghy
Transcribed by Savannah H. Finver
Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-lie-at-the-heart-of-america/
David McConeghy 0:00
My name is David McConeghy. And today it’s my great honor to be joined by Dr. Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. He is James S. McDonald Distinguished University Professor and Chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University, a former president of the American Academy of Religion. A scholar of African American religion, Dr. Glaude’s published works include An Uncommon Faith, Democracy in Black, In a Shade of Blue, and my favorite: Exodus!. I always use it with my students; they love it. Today, he joins us to celebrate the publication of Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. Welcome to The Religious Studies Project, Dr. Glaude.
Eddie S. Glaude 0:43
It is my pleasure to join you, David. I hope you’re doing well.
I am doing well. We are in December, snowstorm approaching. But thankfully, some of the things that were so uncertain over the past couple of months seem like they’re headed towards political resolution. The reason that I bring that up is at the heart of your book is the life of James Baldwin and his later writing. He was one of America’s most celebrated mid-century authors. An extremely powerful voice on understanding the American condition as a set of practices, which you say were built to sustain the lie of the value gap. Can you explain, at the outset, what the lie is and how it relates to what you have called the “value gap”?
Yeah, the lie is, you know, the story we tell ourselves that ensure our virtue. It’s the kind of general architecture that protects this notion that white people ought to matter more than others. And that’s what the value gap is at its heart. Right? That is: certain life is valued more than others, and that valuation is evident, and are evidenced, in our social, political, and economic arrangements. And so, we tell ourselves lies about what we’ve done in order to in some way secure our innocence, which is so critical to American exceptionalism, as it were. So, there’s a line that Baldwin wrote an essay entitled “The White Problem” in 1964. And I’m paraphrasing here, but he says, you know, when those who founded the country had chattel; they had these people that were slaves, and they explicitly said that they were founding a Christian nation. But they had to deal with the fact of these chattel who played such an important role in their lives. And so Baldwin says they had to say that, in effect, that these were not men and women, because if they were not men and women, then no crime would have been committed. And then here’s the line, he said, “that lie is the basis of our present trouble.” So, it’s the lie that we’ve told ourselves about our founding; the lie that we tell ourselves that we are an example of democracy achieved; the lie that tells us that, you know, we’re the shining city on the hill–all with the aim, in part, not only to secure our virtue, but also to hide the depth of our vice. If that makes sense.
Yeah, you really describe this as an arc that is infused in every era of American life. There’s a moment when you kind of describe it as “from [John] Winthrop to [Ronald] Reagan,” right? This city on a hill that gets converted into a shining city on a hill. If I present John Winthrop and the Arabella and all this stuff from early America, right? And I say to them, “Look, you can see the arc of this thread running through it.” If I present that in a religious studies classroom to my introductory students, how should I explain how religion is bound up in preserving and supporting the lie?
Well, I mean, that’s a wonderful question. In some ways it’s, you know–the American project is imagined in some ways as a sacred project of sorts, right? This is the New Canaan. This is an “errand in the wilderness,” as it were. So, there is this religious language that’s at the heart of our early imaginings of who we are as a nation, right, is this sacred project. And how that language evidences itself over time in different epochs or under different material conditions is really important because it sacralizes our power relations, right? It gives a sense that American exceptionalism, under all of these different conditions, right, continues to be a mission. Continues to be an extension of that errand in the wilderness, as it were. So, I say that, you know, the lie is the through line, along with the value gap, is the through line of Americanism, but it’s going to look differently in the context of slavery than it would in the context of Jim Crow, than it would in the context of a black man in the White House. But, at the heart of it all is the ongoing valuation of particular bodies, right? And that valuation leads to the distribution of advantage and disadvantage. And that valuation is part of the sacred mission of the Redeemer nation, as it were. All of this is kind of built into the way in which American nationalism is sacralized, right? And religious language is so critical here. I mean, we could call it civil religion, although we don’t really use that phrase, as much as we used to.
I don’t know, I’m seeing it a lot more. In the past couple of years, it seems like it’s just on the tip of everybody’s tongue. But then again, as you say, as part of the through line, making it a civil religion, as numerous people have argued, gives it an authenticity that it shouldn’t have. Right? It justifies it by giving it legal authority. It says, “well, if this is religion, then this is really civil religion.” And so, the Supreme Court says things like a prayer at the opening of the Senate, for instance, is purely symbolic, right? It strips all of that power. And what I read your work and your reading of Baldwin as doing is restoring the lie’s effect, its ability to create authenticity out of those moments, right? Then that abstraction, if we call it a lie, then we recognize the abstraction for a rhetorical move, right? It’s just simply pivoted away from things.
And then once we make that move, as you rightly describe, now we can begin to track its workings, right? We can begin to see its effects and consequences. And it’s precisely the way in which the lie hides behind a certain, you know, self-understanding, a certain nationalist ideology, hides behind a ready at hand understanding of the American project, that we failed to track how it’s doing its work over time and space and generations. And there are particular people in this place called America who’ve had to bear the brunt of those lies and continue to have to bear the brunt of those lies and what those lies demand of us, it seems to me.
So, how does Baldwin’s particular life story and his body of work help illuminate the lie in a way that everything else seems designed to obscure it? Why is he bringing the light where otherwise we would be shadowed or unable to see?
You know, that’s a great question in a sense, right? Because, you know, even when you, like, when Dr. King, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech at the 100th birthday celebration of W.E.B. Du Bois, he invoked the lie. Even when you read Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk, he invoked the lie. I’m using their language. So, there’s something about Baldwin, right? It’s almost as if he could not be digested whole by the country. And I think this is why I’m so attracted to the later Baldwin.
So, there’s this ongoing insistence to bear witness, to allow suffering to speak, to tell the truth no matter the cost, and it cost him a lot. And I think, you know, even as we were moving into the decadence of the ’80s, the last decade of his life, Baldwin was still bearing witness to the suffering, right? As Black Americans were, as African Americans were making their way into the Cosby era. We wouldn’t say that now. Like, Baldwin is still, you know, laying bare the contradictions of the country and the contradictions of this rising Black middle class. So, I think he’s not unique in this regard, but he’s certainly a model of a certain kind of excellence with regards to this. He is relentless in the work of exposing the failure of the country, to look its ghastly failures, to use those words, the refusal of the country to look its ghastly failures in the face. It’s part of his ministry, as it were, if you want to call it that.
I think you have and do call it his ministry. He calls it his ministry as well. His mission, his calling. There’s all of this religious language bound up in how Baldwin thinks about and presents his critique of America. Since half of our audience is not within America, in Europe and in Australia, can you say a little bit about Baldwin’s religious background that might help us kind of get a footing under where this kind of language comes from?
Sure. So, let’s do a little quick biography. You know, Baldwin is born in Harlem in August of 1924. So he’s born five years before the Great Depression, which means he comes of age in Depression Harlem, right? And he’s not in Sugar Hill, which is a certain kind of Black upper middle class space. Baldwin is in what we call in the U.S. “the hood.” His stepfather and his mother–his stepfather is a migrant from Louisiana. His mother is also part of that Great Wave of migration from the South. She’s from the eastern shore of Maryland. Baldwin is…he doesn’t know his father. His mother meets his stepfather who is an itinerant preacher. He doesn’t have a church. He just moves from church to church every Sunday, and it’s Baptist. But Baldwin is attracted to a kind of Pentecostalism right? You know, the gods of the Black metropolis, as it were, as Arthur Fauset describes them. And so, he is reared within the Pentecostal tradition and at the age of 14 becomes a preacher. Right? Fireside, Pentecostal church in Harlem. But you know, he says in this really dramatic moment, so typical of Baldwin, you know, he read Dostoyevsky, and oh! All hell broke loose, right, in terms of his faith. You know, he kept reading, he kept reading.
So, there’s a sense in which the relationship with the father growing up in a pretty religiously strict household, making his way to Pentecostalism, as he describes it in The Fire Next Time, a book published in 1963, which turns out, as he says, in retrospect, to be his gimmick. He retreats into the church in order to come to terms with his own desires, you know, physical desires, his own sexuality, and the threat, the dangers, of the street, as it were, of the alleyways and the like. But he says he left the church, but the church never left him. So, you know, when you think about Baldwin’s prose, his writing, you have to do this extraordinary excavation work, right? You have to try to track down his bibliography. And not only do you see Henry James, you know, you see Marcel Proust. You know, you’ve got to find the King James Bible. You’re going to hear the Black homiletic tradition in the way he writes, the rhythm of his sentences, even those Jamesian never-ending sentences, right? So, you know, he’ll say, he left the church, but the church never left him. In fact, his last essay, published in 1987 in Playboy magazine, is entitled “To Crush a Serpent,” where he offers this amazing sermon on salvation and love. It’s amazing.
I see a very strong parallel between the way that you describe Baldwin having been raised religiously, so deeply invested in that life. And then leaving that life with his own geographical journey, where he left the United States for Europe and was in numerous places in Europe writing and trying to figure out if religion never left him, when he went to Europe and to…Turkey was it?
Oh, Istanbul–that America never left him in that same way. So, what is it about distance, the distance from his religious views and the distance from America that really set him up for that?
You know, there’s a wonderful moment in the beginning of Nobody Knows My Name–the volume published right after The Fire Next Time–and, you know, he has this line where he says, “In America, the color of my skin had stood between myself and me. In Europe, that barrier was down. Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction. But nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch. It turned out that the question of who I was, was not solved because I had removed myself from the social forces which menaced me. Anyway, these forces had become interior, and I had dragged them across the ocean with me. The question of who I was had at least become a personal question. And the answer was to be found in me.”
So, he left the United States, he left America in 1948, because he said, in The Price of the Ticket, he said, he had to leave; either he was going to kill somebody, or somebody was going to kill him. The rage that was in his father, his stepfather, was now evident in him. And so, you know, the desire or the demand to live this bourgeois life–Baldwin was supposed to get married, he was actually engaged. He’s supposed to work at the post office, you know, this sort of thing. But he threw that, you know, the proposed wedding ring into the Hudson River and found himself in Greenwich Village, and, you know, fell in love and then found himself in Paris. So, he needed the distance. I call it in the book an “elsewhere.” Right? He needed the space because the ongoing wounding, it’s like, you know, these little cuts, as he talks about in “The Uses of the Blues,” right? You get this ongoing assault that is evidenced in the disregard of the society for who you are. The denial of dignity and standing, and how that is evidenced every single day in your life. And so, Baldwin said he needed the space in order to think about this behemoth, he had to get the distance. So, he didn’t see himself as an exile. He didn’t like the word. He saw himself as a transatlantic commuter, someone who was moving back and forth. So, Paris became the space; he found a home eventually in Saint Paul de Vence. But, you know, he was in London, he was in Istanbul, you know, he spent some time in Israel, I mean, you know, at a kibbutz. I mean, Baldwin is a fascinating figure in terms of the global landscape. But he’s always thinking about, you know, home, this place, the place that shaped him.
I get a sense that there’s something that simply refuses to be assimilated. Right? That his position in the U.S. meant that he was trying to speak truth that others did not want to hear and that maybe they were not capable of saying. And that when he left, he felt freer to say those things, or found himself in a place that allowed him to say those things. But he couldn’t be in–I know that you’ve written that Paris couldn’t hold him in the same way. Right? And then he eventually became…he lost the glitter of Paris. It became dull for him. What do you think that it was that refused to be assimilated that he saw? Was it simply his rootedness in home or family? Like, why didn’t he simply stay in Paris and never come back, right? Or stay in Istanbul and never return again?
Well, you know, he’s an artist at his heart, right? And so, he’s trying to find his voice. So, you know, he’s writing Go Tell It on the Mountain, and he’s stuck. And, you know, it’s not until he starts listening to those blues albums, listening to Bessie Smith and the like, that he hears the language, right, that he dreams in; that he hears the language that he needs to figure out how to translate on the page. He longed for the folks he loved, you know, his brothers and sisters, his mother, the sense of connection, right? So again, Baldwin is never–and he says in Nobody Knows My Name, he says, “I didn’t trade the American fantasy for the French one.” He’s not naive. That, you know, America’s ugliness is unique to itself, right? The ugliness takes shape and form, you know, throughout the West. And he sees it in the Algerians and the depth of the bloody violence between the French and the Algerians, right? So, even as they’re romanticizing the music and popular culture of Black folk in France, he understands that whiteness still obtains there. So, I think at the end of the day, as an artist, he’s trying to find his voice. And that voice is, I think, David–well, I don’t think; I know–is entirely of this place. Right? It’s entirely of this place. Because Baldwin is spending a lifetime trying to figure out the American riddle.
One of the things that I know that I stress in the classroom is the artificiality of categories, how they do so much work for us. I know Russell McCutcheon‘s great little introductory essay to the study of religion cites the tomato Supreme Court case, right? But we do sports examples in my class: Is sports religion? Well, it depends on your definition.
One of the things that I sense in the way that you write about Baldwin, when you identify him presenting America as an identity that we take on, that as a category, that that category is really fungible. It does such a powerful work sustaining the lie, but at the same time, you argue–and I think Baldwin argues–that even with the lie embedded in that identity, that there is still a kernel there that can be pushed, it can eventually push the lie back out of that identity. How, as a category, when we treat America like that–so it’s not the Redeemer nation. It’s not the innocent nation. It’s not God’s chosen nation. It’s not the Christian nation (I’ve got my Richard Hughes on the shelf behind me)–how do we work with a category that is so expansive like that?
Yeah, I mean, it’s a hard thing to do. You know, one simple way to respond is simply say, you know, “tell the truth about who we are and what we’ve done.” And that involves, you know, kind of, those sorts of stories we tell. So, just, you know, we are this country. We’re no one else. This is who we are. And what does that involve? What does that entail in all of its ugliness and all of its beauty, right? And so, you know, I take it as the work of, say, The 1619 Project is something like this, right? So, what would it mean for us to tell the story with the beginning at 1619 as opposed to 1776? Or, you know, Jamestown as opposed to Plymouth Rock, right? And those aren’t origin stories. Those are beginnings, right? It’s not an origin narrative. And as Edward Said would say, you know, the problem of beginnings is the beginning of the problem.
So, when we start with the 1619 date, what comes into view? America was, you know, a corporation before it was a country. Oh, okay. Indentured servants, white indentured servants. Okay, class distinction, okay, good. Native peoples, oh, they’re present. Slaves. Oh, okay. And failure. Right? All of that comes into view if you begin there, as opposed to, you know, the narrative of Plymouth Rock, or the myth of Plymouth Rock, as it were. So, that beginning orients you differently to who you take yourself to be as individuals who happen to inhabit this space. So, how do we navigate this behemoth? You know, for Baldwin, it’s just tell the truth about what we’ve done, which–because that doing shapes who we take ourselves to be. And it actually constrains our aspirations about who we can be, in some way.
One of the instances of that truth-telling that listeners to the RSP will know that we–Breann and I–have talked about in at least two different episodes is the Legacy Museum, more colloquially known as the Lynching Museum for those, but the National Memorial for Peace and Justice that is in Montgomery, Alabama. You write about it in connection with Baldwins journey to the South and learning the South. Can you share a little bit about the ways in which that excavation for Baldwin of the South connects to your own experience of visiting the Legacy Museum?
Yeah, Baldwin says, you know–remember, he’s a child of the South. He’s that first generation of Southern migrants to the North, right? He’s that first generation born and raised. But you can imagine what they ate in the house, the sound of the language, the culture in the household, as it were, was deeply Southern. And when he came back from Paris for the first time, you know, he knew he had to return to that space. Why? Because remember, I said, Baldwin spends his entire life trying to figure out the American riddle. And the answer to that riddle, in my view, is in the South. It’s not the Midwest, as Imani Perry would argue in her new book, it’s not the Midwest that’s the heartland of the country. The South is, right, in so many ways.
And so, Baldwin says he ran, you know, he ran to the South. In other words, he ran towards his fear; he feared that region. And in so many ways, when you go to the Legacy Museum, when you go to the National Memorial down there, you see why, right? Because, to my mind, it’s not a triumphant story that they’re trying to tell in the museum; it’s not a story that resolves itself in the greatness of the country. Rather, it’s a confrontation with the brutality, the bloody history of the country, that saturates literally the soil of the place. And so, it is demanding a kind of reckoning with our dead. And what we have done to produce these bodies in some ways. And so, this encounter, this insistence on confronting the brutality of our way of living that has made this possible– it’s like what William James says in one of his essays, “it is the bitterness at the bottom of the cup.” Right? That becomes the occasion for a different kind of imagining.
So, Baldwin has to go south, right, in order to answer the riddle. And it’s there that we confront who we are. And it’s also there that we relentlessly evade who we are. Right? Over and over again. And you get this, you know, because Baldwin is like, “in the south, there’s race and sex and power. All of this is all intertwined. I mean, intermingled.” And, you know, Malcolm would say, “as long as you’re south of the Canadian border, you’re in the South.” But he’s talking about this particular region for a moment, for a reason. So, I think I’m rambling a bit, but as a son of the South, I honestly believe if we figure it out, the nation might very well be set free.
I’m so struck by the repeated calls to imagine differently. I evoke similar language in my courses, trying to simply upend those big, big tropes. One of the formative works for me was Lyotard’s work on metanarratives and simply defining postmodernism as incredulity towards metanarratives. How can we trust these big stories? And in part, I see a tension there, in your work, between the power of imagination, but also its tenacity when it opposes us. How dug in it is. So, are you positioning it as competing imaginaries? Is this a nested imaginary? Like, if I’m with you–and I’m really with you; I want to throw this book at all my students, right? If I’m with you on that, the question is, can I simply combat imagination with imagination, right? Because the media experts tell us that when, you know, a lie promulgates through the web, you can’t simply just throw the truth at it, right? That doesn’t displace the lie; it doesn’t upend the lie. So, for just imaginary versus imaginary, I find it frustrating to try to operationalize that, right? How does one replace the other?
Well, you know, to me, the imagination is key to set up the conditions for the possibility of fundamental transformation. If one can’t imagine an otherwise, then one can’t mobilize and organize for an otherwise. So, it seems to me–and I use this example, you know. I use it often actually. Imagine an enslaved woman who knows nothing but slavery. That is her experience, to be a means to someone else’s ends. And yet, there’s a moment where she looks into the eyes of a man who says that he loves her. And she sees a flit of love. She sees the glimmer of love in his eyes. Or she hears the sound of innocence of children playing outside the cabin, knowing that it’s probably fleeting, right? But it’s a sound of children playing. And both experiences break open this relation of domination, right? Both experiences give space for the imagination to intervene.
And so, it’s in that experience that, you know, that Charles Long‘s formulation, that Christianity allows one to see beyond the opacity of one’s condition, right? Or the slave was able to see beyond the opacity of her condition, right? And so, part of what I’m suggesting–but that doesn’t undermine the relation of domination. That would be silly to make that claim. So, part of what I argue in Begin Again is that the imagination is absolutely–we have to imagine ourselves differently to break free from this frame. But underneath that, or alongside that, or following that, is the necessary work, of organizing, of doing policy work of engaging in, you know, challenging power, right? In Democracy in Black, I call it, echoing King and [Friedrich] Nietzsche, our need for the revolution of values. Right? And that is, we have to upend how we view government. We have to upend how we view white people. And we have to upend what we value. And we do that through grassroots mobilization and organizing. So, the imagination, you know, shorthand, David, it just sets the conditions for the possibility of fundamental transformation. It’s not the end. It’s necessary, but it’s damn sure not sufficient.
For those that would like to dive into the primary material, the primary sources of Baldwin, can we end on a recommendation that you would give readers who may be unfamiliar with Baldwin’s work and would like to join you in accessing his telling of how America can imagine itself more powerfully, more oriented towards justice, and end the value gap?
Yeah, you know, I’m teaching Baldwin in the spring, actually. So, I’m teaching his nonfiction. And I should say that much of what I focus on in Begin Again is the nonfiction work, and it’s because I think he’s one of the greatest essayists we’ve produced in the West. He’s the inheritor of Emerson, in my view. He just brings Emerson across the tracks. But that’s not to diminish his fiction. I don’t want to. But I would suggest to your listeners that they get the Library of America Edition of Baldwin’s nonfiction collected works. This is what I use as the anchor in my course. And I think it’s important because you begin with Notes of a Native Son, the first book of nonfiction. And then you just read from the beginning to the end. And I think it’s important to read from the beginning to the end because you see the continuity of theme, but then you see where he shifts the accents. Suddenly, l’accent aigu becomes l’accent grave, or something, you know, or the change in breath, and something shifts in terms of the meaning of the words. Now, the only problem with the Library of American Edition, which was edited by the late Toni Morrison by the way, is that it doesn’t include the last book, and that is The Evidence of Things Not Seen, which is a book about the Atlanta child murders which most people dismiss, but which I think is just sheer genius at the level of form, and the boldness of his critique of black faces who hold power. It’s an enormously relevant book to read in our times right now. But I say, you know, begin there, and just read him from beginning to end.
If we are all so fortunate to do that, we will be right there with you. It’s been a great pleasure speaking with you, Dr. Glaude. Thank you so much for joining us today.
It is my pleasure, and you take care and stay safe and have a great holiday.
Oh, thank you. You, too.
Eddie S Glaude, Jr. 2021. “The Lie at the Heart of America with Eddie S. Glaude Jr. by David McConeghy “, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 18 Jan. 2021. Transcribed by Savannah H Finver. Version 1.0, 18 Jan. 2021. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-lie-at-the-heart-of-america/
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