Reimagining America

As Black History Month began, and Middlesex students and faculty continued exploring how racism pervades everyday practices and policies, the community turned its attention to the country’s political system, taking a closer look at democracy and race through a virtual visit with Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr. on February 6, 2021.

An esteemed scholar and compelling speaker, Dr. Glaude is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor and chair of Princeton’s Department of African American Studies, a program he first became involved with shaping as a doctoral candidate in religion at the university. While he has written on religion and philosophy, in his best-known books – including his recent New York Times bestseller, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own – Dr. Glaude focuses on the difficulties of race in the United States and the challenges that democracy faces. Framing his address for his Middlesex audience, he directed his remarks to “where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and what we can be” in terms of the “vexing history of race and democracy in America.”

Individually and collectively, Dr. Glaude noted, the country’s hyperpolarized political climate, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic instability, and the killing of Jacob Blake, George Floyd, and many other Black Americans all highlight long-held, underlying ideas: that the lives of Black people are worth less and that the “browning” of America represents a decline. “The American idea is in trouble,” Dr. Glaude observed. “For too long, we have told ourselves a story of virtue. Today, we confront the ugliness of who we are.”

America has been here before, as he explained. “Reconstruction could have been the realization of a multiracial democracy,” Dr. Glaude said, “but we got Jim Crow laws instead, asserting white supremacy.” Civil rights advances made in the 1960s have been followed by other oppositional actions, such as white flight, gerrymandering, and voter suppression efforts. “America doubles down on its ugliness when a new nation is about to be born,” he stated.

“This is at the heart of understanding race and democracy,” Dr. Glaude stressed. “America’s original sin is not slavery. It is the belief that white people matter more than others.” And in clinging to “a story of virtue that sustains our innocence,” he continued, “We are trapped in a history we refuse to know.”

To confront the country’s history and reimagine what America can be, Dr. Glaude advised, people must face “as much truth as one can bear,” as writer James Baldwin once titled an essay for the New York Times Book Review. “We have to understand how racism distorts and disfigures our democracy,” Dr. Glaude said. “We have to confront what we’ve done and who we are. We have to grapple with a past that continues to haunt us.” Though he acknowledged that America has historically not done well in facing these issues at pivotal moments, he added that he concurs with the author Samuel Beckett, who wrote, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Leaving time for students to ask questions, Dr. Glaude responded thoughtfully to each one, encouraging “keeping track of the goodness of people” and discouraging demonizing  opponents. Asked if politics is the arena where young people should aim to make a difference, Dr. Glaude recommended that students be guided by what they care about most. “If you believe people shouldn’t go broke if they get sick, you need to fight for healthcare,” he suggested.

“Keep the concept of justice in front of us,” he emphasized. “If we turn a blind eye, we become complicit.” Above all, Dr. Glaude advocated for truth, in words and actions, concluding, “Be fully who you are, in every space you inhabit, so that you won’t be complicit in a world that is trying to make you small.” Students then met with their advisors to discuss the issues Dr. Glaude raised and reflect on what the Middlesex community can do to become more inclusive and equitable.   (photo credit: Sameer A. Khan, Fotobuddy LLC)