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Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Today – review

The great writer’s passion and resilience resonate anew in Eddie S Glaude Jr’s timely, powerful study

Michael Ondaatje once wrote that if Van Gogh was “our 19th-century artist-saint” then James Baldwin was “our 20th-century one”. For many, Baldwin’s writing has long been a touchstone of anti-racist humanism, but the sense of that particular epithet has never landed more emphatically for me than while reading Eddie S Glaude Jr’s Begin Again, his potent meditation on the enduring legacy of Baldwin’s life and thought, a New York Times bestseller and one of a number of titles that have spoken to the soul of public outrage at George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis last May.

Glaude, who is distinguished professor and chair of the African American studies department at Princeton University (where he has been teaching a seminar on Baldwin for several years), is also a native of Jackson County, Mississippi, the US state that suffered the highest number of lynchings – 581 between 1882 and 1968. The trauma of that inheritance – “our bodies carry the traumas forward,” Glaude writes – is never far from the page. Nor is the trauma felt across black America in his parents’ generation when in 1968 Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, crushing hopes for “fundamental change” that had been gathering around the US civil rights movement for the best part of a decade.

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