Before I proceed with my discussion of Begin Again, I ask your indulgence for a personal note.
As my readership has grown, so has the number of my readers who are college students. Given my penchant for citing works of American history, I am often asked for my criteria in book selection.
My study of history over the last half century has been focused primarily on American history, with Middle East history and European history running close behind. I was fortunate to have attended Northwestern University, which at that time and continuing to the present has had one of the top history departments in the nation.
As a product of the tutelage of my Northwestern professors, my focus has always been on the books of distinguished interpretive historians, who have demonstrated their capacity for critical thinking.
One usually acquires the capacity for critical thinking either by the attainment of a PhD. in history or some related field, such as philosophy, religion, or political science. “Interpretive history,” as distinguished from mere narrative or descriptive history, involves the ability of the historian to apply his critical thinking to ascertain the motives and beliefs of the historical figures in question.
Throughout the past century of American historiography, there has always been a conflict between the works of “consensus” and “revisionist” historians. I have always recommended to my students that they read the works of both. My ultimate favorite American interpretive historian, Richard Hofstadter, expressed both consensus and revisionist views.
I emphasize that the term “interpretive” historian must be distinguished from narrative biographers, mere narrative historians, or “pop” historians. The following three individuals, none of whom have earned doctorates, as distinguished from honorary doctorates, are examples of what I mean.
Robert Caro, the author of The Power Broker about the life of Robert Moses and his series on the life of LBJ is a superb narrative biographer. I heartily recommended his books to students. He is not an interpretive historian, however, in the mode of Yale historian David Blight, who in his biography of Frederick Douglass exhibits both exquisite narrative and interpretive skills.
Michael Beschloss, the author of various books on American presidents and the presidency, is an excellent journalistic researcher, which qualifies his books as worthy narrative histories. But they are not interpretive histories, and I would not recommend them to my students as such.
My archetypal example of a “pop” historian is Jon Meacham, who appears often on MSNBC as an in- house historian, hired to give historical context to contemporary events. Instead, he only provides historical clichés. I have disdain for him and find him to be a supercilious, pseudo-intellectual, superficial analyst of history and a foolish pontificator on politics, which he knows nothing about. The following review of his recent book on John Lewis by Eric Foner, himself an absolutely top-flight interpretive historian of Reconstruction, is very much in accord with my views on Meacham as well.
By contrast, Eddie Glaude, Jr., a distinguished professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University is the real deal – a superb interpretive historian, up there with Doris Kearns Goodwin, Garry Wills, John Milton Cooper, Andrew Delbanco, David Levering Lewis, and Alvin Felzenberg, New Jersey’s leading comparative presidential analyst. Eddie is a genuine source of pride to New Jersey.
His book, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, is particularly relevant for this presidential campaign of 2020. The criminal mismanagement of the Coronavirus crisis by Donald Trump has assured the victory of Joe Biden. This is the year, however, where the issue of systemic racism, as inflamed by the murder of George Floyd, Jr. and the attempted murder of James Blake has fully emerged. It will not rapidly recede.
Systemic racism in America has manifested itself most vividly regarding two issues 1) voter suppression; and 2) police racist brutality. The Black Lives Matter movement is a logical response to both. By reading this book and the Baldwin story, however, one becomes aware of something else: The Black Lives Matter movement has also been a long-delayed reaction to White efforts to write the history of African-Americans in ways that degraded the value of Black lives.
The originator of the academic movement to defame the Black role in Reconstruction was Columbia professor William Archibald Dunning. The “Dunning school,” as Glaude described it, was the first generation of trained historians to write about Reconstruction. These writers described the period as one of extreme overreach of federal power and the corruption of northern carpetbaggers, and they viewed the granting of political rights to former slaves as “a monstrous mistake.”
The Dunning defamation was supported by America’s bard of Camden, New Jersey, Walt Whitman, who described African-Americans as having as much intelligence and caliber (in the mass) “as so many baboons.” Now that I have read this, I will joyfully sign any petition to lawfully take down the statue of Walt Whitman in Camden.
The Dunning school was a most virulent cancer on the American body politic, resulting in the distorted culture of movies and literature like Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation and the continued deprivation of African-American civil rights in the South. Yet most acutely, the pain of this degradation was felt by individual African-Americans, who sensed the value of their lives being degraded.
And nobody expressed this pain more eloquently than James Baldwin. This book is a magnificent description by Eddie Glaude, Jr. of both the painful life and powerful writing of Baldwin, the poet of the civil rights movement.
And both Donald Trump and Jared Kushner would have been saved from disgrace at this convention had they first read this book.
This year, Major League Baseball is celebrating the 100th birthday of Jackie Robinson. Jackie was a towering figure in American history, both in terms of his breaking baseball’s Jim Crow barrier and in being a most articulate voice protesting injustices against people of color.
Today, in the wake of the attempted murder of Jacob Blake by a policeman in Kenosha, Wisconsin and the murder of two Black protestors by a 17-year-old white supremacist who traveled there, leading NBA players have followed the example of Jackie Roosevelt Robinson to lead boycotts of games. And both Donald Trump and Jared Kushner reacted in a tone-deaf, despicable, disgustingly insensitive manner.
In his typical myopic manner, Donald Trump focused on the declining television ratings for the NBA, ignoring the fact that the decline has been due to the Pandemic. He gratuitously suggested that NBA players stay away from political issues.
That offensive reaction of the President, who has often expressed his hostility to the Black Lives Matter movement was a model of diplomacy, compared to that of Jared, as follows:
“Look, I think that the NBA players are very fortunate that they have the financial position where they’re able to take a night off from work without having to have the consequences to themselves financially,” Kushner said. “So they have that luxury, which is great.”
Jared Kushner, child of privilege is expressing resentment at the wealth of NBA players who, in most cases, worked themselves up from poverty to earn their wealth, something Jared didn’t need to do.
What Jared and Donald fail to acknowledge is that the attempted murder of Jacob Blake is typical racist police brutality that is an all-too frequent reality in the lives of African-Americans.
The conventions of the past two weeks were historic in that the issue of systemic racism is now becoming a dominant and defining issue. The Democrats have recognized the reality of systemic racism and are addressing it. The Republicans are failing totally to recognize or address it.
Jared and Donald badly need to read the new book of Eddie Glaude, Jr. Black lives do matter, Jared and Donald.
Alan Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.