The Arduous Task of Self-Creation

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Nassau Hall (via Flickr)

On most nights, Nassau Hall sits in a monumental silence, its facade blazing against the night sky from the industrial-grade lighting in the courtyard beneath. But the scene on Wednesday, November 18, 2015 cut through the majesty of Princeton’s meticulously designed campus plan. Students had gathered outside the main door, leaving open a patch of gravel path in front of the steps where tacitly appointed leaders stood as they improvised, attempting to compile a repertoire of chants and songs.

After the call and response of “No Justice! No Peace!” had filtered through the windows of the building for ten or fifteen minutes, the chanting quieted to a soft din to make way for a voice new to the scene. Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. is the current Chair of the Department of African American Studies and William S. Tod Professor of Religion at Princeton.  “You want to support you friends inside, right?” he asked from the foot of the steps, flanked by the two stone tigers perched on either side. A resounding “Yeah!” bellowed from the crowd. The follow-up, “But you want them to be reasonable, right?” was met with a notably less enthusiastic response.

Standing in the crowd, I could make out the tan-suit-clad Glaude, gazing out at the throng of students through oval frames. He was just one of a host of prominent figures–including noted philosopher Cornel West, Reverend William Barber, leader of the “Moral Mondays” civil rights movement in North Carolina and Ruth Simmons, former President of Brown University–who offered counsel that night to the members of a sit-in, students occupying the office of President Christopher Eisgruber. The tone of the advice was less parental than cautionary. Despite the wealth of experience that passed through Nassau Hall, it was the students, not their elders, who were calling the shots. Glaude’s simple message, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

 

At times, Glaude calls himself “a country boy,” referencing his childhood in Moss Point, Mississippi, a small town on the gulf coast where he was born in 1968.  Moss Point was a “rich and complex place” whose natives now include University professors and professional athletes. When Glaude was growing up it was 60 to70 percent black, but divided into the lower income east side and the predominantly white west side, Pascagoula. He was in the second grade when his father, Eddie Sr., was hired at the Pacagoula Post Office, and his family moved to the other side of town. Although many followed, the Glaudes were only the third black family to move in.

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(From the website of Princeton’s Department of African American Studies)

“Once we moved, life changed dramatically,” Glaude says, recalling new opportunities, access, and relationships. He speaks fondly of his childhood friends, listing their names and current occupations. “Ron Krotosynski and I were like this,” he reminisces holding up two crossed fingers, “playing dungeons and dragons together, in class together, and competing all the way until we both left our town.”

Still, the Glaudes were not just part of an integrating town: they were the integrators. Glaude remembers playing with his Tonka Truck and his new neighbor outside the neighbor’s home just a few days after they had moved in. The other boy’s father yelled from the house, “Stop playing with that N*****.” It was the first time Glaude he had heard that word used as a brand for his identity.

Two years later, Glaude stormed out of his fourth grade classroom after calling his teacher a racist for singling him out in class. Going home that afternoon, he remembered feeling an overwhelming sense of dread at the thought of the punishment that surely awaited him. To his surprise, his father merely asked questions: “What did she say? How did she say it? What has she been doing?”

“Then you were right,” Eddie Sr. told his son upon hearing the evidence, “You always do that.”

Glaude describes his father as a task-master. The steely reserve of their relationship cracked only for Muhammad Ali fights, Richard Pryor skits, and Bobby “Blue” Bland songs.  “I’m not here to be your friend,” Eddie Sr. would tell his son, “I’m here to prepare you for a world that’s not friendly.” Glaude recites the words as a mantra, passed down less so father-to-son than drill sergeant-to-new recruit. Repeating the phrase, Glaude pauses thoughtfully at the word “friend.”

At the age of 12, Glaude sat down at his blue typewriter to write his first book. It would be called “On Psychological Abuse,” an homage to his father’s parenting style, never physical, but always meant to toughen his son’s skin against the realities of a black and white world. “It was a different kind of preparation,” Glaude says, “I always tell my students in these spaces you cultivate the habits of courage or you cultivate the habits of cowardliness. My dad wouldn’t let me be a coward when it came to race matters.”

Glaude found out only years later what came of the incident with the Tonka Truck. After hearing his son’s story, his father walked straight to the neighbor’s house. “If you ever…” he said, holding a 38 caliber revolver to the man’s chest.

Whatever the emotional effects of the relationship, his father’s stern approach to life at home helped to instill a drive in Glaude from an early age. Motivated by the idea that “Excellence is your best armor,” he went to Morehouse College at sixteen and after graduating, went on to Princeton, where he earned his Ph.D. in religion in just four years.

 

In his introductory lectures, addressing a group of some fifty students and auditors, Glaude’s energy fills the room. His smile is infectious, but even with undergraduates, he speaks openly on the topic of rage. He always seems on the verge of slipping into a grimace – brow furrowed, eyebrows pushing up against one another, and mouth contorted – reflective of the pain of the continuous mistreatment of black bodies: Rodney King, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland… In these moments, the passion emanating from his entire body pulls down on the room and the listener feels himself tumbling into the vast ugliness of experience, the experience of being black in a country that won’t let you forget it. But in mid-freefall, Glaude pulls back on the other end of a cord connecting rage with love. He never finishes a lecture, or any conversation for that matter, on what he calls the “blue notes.” Instead he offers a witty quip or moment of inspiration to counteract the pain. Often, he invokes his grandmother’s words on rage: “If you keep dwelling on it, it’s gonna eat you up.”

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In these lectures, Glaude discusses the writing of James Baldwin even more frequently than he recollects the advice of his family members. He describes Baldwin as his muse and talks about “Jimmy” as if the two are the best of friends, ready to sit down at the bar together for a round of drinks after class. But like most of Glaude’s words, the jovial attitude he speaks with seems to emit from a darker place. As I leave Glaude’s office one morning, I recall Baldwin’s “A Letter to My Nephew.” It’s hard to tell where Baldwin’s voice stops and Glaude’s begins. “You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being,” Baldwin writes, “You were expected not to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.”

Whenever he is caught by the fervor of Baldwin’s prose – Glaude’s voice begins to strain and his hands come alive – he returns to the importance of “the arduous task of self-creation in the face of denied individuality.” The creation is not just preparation, but assertion of one’s place in an unfriendly world.

“Baldwin gave me the language to articulate my rage,” begins another of Glaude’s meditations on life, which he repeats habitually, “he instructs me on how to embrace overwhelming love.” With his own son, Langston, Glaude makes a concerted effort to talk about ways to attenuate, while still recognizing, anger. Every day growing up, Glaude made sure Langston heard what he had not from his own father: “I love you.” The beads Glaude wears on his right wrist stand out against the formality of the rest of his wardrobe. He got them from a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan while on a trip to give a series of lectures at Doshisha University. He brought Langston with him abroad after what Glaude remembers as a particularly tense stretch of basketball games. One thing Glaude did inherit from his father was an unyielding intensity, a trait that set the two at each other’s throats. “It represents my connection with my boy, my man, the kid that I’ve called champ since the moment he was born,” Glaude says of the bracelet. Langston has one just like it that he wears every day.

Still, Glaude reflects, “I am my father’s child. I’m still trying to prepare him for a word that’s not friendly. Part of that involves having the armor, George, to protect yourself against a world that despises you, so that it doesn’t get into your soul.” There is always a certain calm passion fueling Glaude’s words, but invoking my name struck a different tone. Armor isn’t academic jargon and it’s not something Glaude puts on with a smile after a cup of coffee each morning. It’s the reality of his lived experience, a reality he refuses to hide from those around him, his students, his colleagues, or himself.

 

Academically, Glaude’s work falls under the heading of American pragmatism, a tradition started just before the turn of the 20th Century by the likes of John Dewey and William James. Reinvigorated in the 1970s and ‘80s by the work of the late Princeton University philosopher Richard Rorty, pragmatism attempts to pull traditional philosophy out of the realm of abstract thought. The pragmatist sees knowledge as experiential. Instead of finding its basis in assumptions about human nature, knowledge is closer to “the fruit of our undertakings,” continually developing in an uncertain world. By grounding our beliefs about the world in lived experience, philosophy becomes a tool, not for abstract theorizing, but for social critique.

Glaude’s own pragmatism pulls heavily from Dewey who uses “critical intelligence” as a guide. Every high school science class teaches the basis of the scientific method: form a hypothesis, set up an experiment, test one variable, and record the results. Critical intelligence works in a similar way, recording the results of past actions to orient future action. Glaude writes of Dewey’s experimentalism in his book In a Shade of Blue:We are always confronted with the possibility of error when we act. We experiment or tinker, with the understanding that all facts are fallible and, as such, occasionally afford us the opportunity for revision.”

More generally, pragmatism holds that political authority should stem only from free agreement of the members of a society, and that one should do everything possible to eliminate human suffering. These beliefs commit the pragmatist to an effort to provide all children equal opportunities at happiness. There are improvements to be made on all of these issues, but in light of their complexity, Glaude’s work is guided by the questions, “What would happen if human beings engaged in the experimental method in their moral and ethical lives? What would happen if we thought experimentally in the political domain?”

At times, Dewey and James wrestled with questions of race. But despite writing against the backdrop of a nation still fighting the battles of reconstruction and segregation, neither painted race as a pervasive blemish on American democracy itself.

Glaude takes the history of race relations in America as the focal point of what he calls a “haunting duality at the heart of this country: a simultaneous commitment to democratic ideals and undemocratic practices.”

Following in the footsteps of Cornel West, Glaude takes a pragmatist approach to the problem of racial inequality in America. As it moves from addressing general political questions about freedom and democracy to looking at the issue of race in America, pragmatism itself takes on a different tone. Where Dewey’s writing remained steeped in his belief in scientific reason and Rorty’s work focuses heavily on the use of language, Glaude’s pragmatism is shaped by tragedy and imagination, the ability to reconceive of one’s self and one’s place in society.

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(From Princeton’s Department of African American Studies)

“Part of what we need to do,” Glaude tells an introductory African American Studies lecture, “is refuse to disremember the complexity of the Black Civil Rights movement.” The traditional story of the protests throughout the 1960s and 70s is one of steady progress, from Brown v. Board of Education, to the March on Washington in 1963, to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The mainstream narrative co-opts the successes of the organizing done at places like the Highlander School and fashions them into the deeds of a benevolent America. This story sidelines the ugliness of Emmett Till’s murder in 1955 and the race riots of 1964-65, which Glaude describes with words like “uprising” and “rebellion.” Forgetting the violence of the time robs today’s movements of the ability to learn from those past experiences. “When we make non-violence normative, when we make non-violence ordinary,” Glaude repeats for emphasis, “we lose the miracle of its invocation.” By staring down the harsh truth of these tragedies, black Americans as well as anyone involved in the fight for racial justice can understand the work that has brought us to where we stand today and acknowledge what is still left to accomplish.

The same is true of black identity. Overemphasis on conceptions of what it means to be black abstract away from the experiences of real people. When membership in a community is based solely on skin color, it creates an environment where, Glaude writes in his book In a Shade of Blue, “There is a real way of being black and a false way.” Such rigid beliefs might explain a particular conception of solidarity sometimes seen in protest. When there is a right way to be black, anyone not actively supporting a movement, standing on the front lines, becomes a white sympathizer.  But there is a more constructive and flexible way to arrive at a collective identity in the struggle for racial equality. Glaude speaks of “breaking up the character of identity,” rotating an outstretched hand as if to illuminate the fluorescent concept of ‘blackness’ by unscrewing it from the restrictive socket of American ideology. By building a conception of solidarity around the particular problems in a community, the faces that make up a group can change in response to shared concerns. Such a pragmatic definition of what it means to be black might also have the virtue of emerging directly from the experience of marginalized peoples. It would not be spoiled by the influence of corporate media or politics.

Reimagining history and asserting that ‘blackness’ can change may sound odd. Typically, once we settle on our own conception of personal identity, we tend to stick with it. We think of ‘my identity’ and ‘my community’ as fixed and find value in their unyielding certainty. Pragmatism breaks with that assumption entirely. It holds that the world is an uncertain, constantly changing place and because of that fact we have a choice; we can feel lost and passively buy in to the stories and myths passed down to us or we can imagine something entirely new. Meliorism is a tenet of pragmatism that rests heavily on what Glaude refers to as “the heroic capacities of ordinary people.” It sits between blind faith and abject defeatism. At its core, meliorism means “all is not settled,” a phrase Glaude utters with a special gravitas. Each ordinary person can change his own life, but it is also his responsibility to do so. Meliorism, in Glaude’s words, “opens up space for human agency, for our ability to reimagine our circumstances in radical ways.”

 

Glaude sees his own pragmatism as part of the second generation of prophetic pragmatism, a space that Cornel West opened in 1989 with The American Evasion of Philosophy. If Baldwin is his muse, then West is Glaude’s mentor. “All of my work,” he writes in the acknowledgements of In a Shade of Blue,, “is indebted to Cornel West.” American Evasion offered a new genealogy of American pragmatism, tracing its development from Emerson to Dewey to Rorty, stopping to analyze others like Reinhold Niebuhr, Lionel Trilling, and Hilary Putnam along the way.

West and Glaude sat side-by-side at a Teach-in at Princeton in early December, translating each other’s words between the language of spirituality and that of democratic process, respectively. The difference between the two men might be summed up in their goatees. West’s beard, apparently inspired by the nineteenth Century Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, is a mass of wiry black and gray that seems to be eating his mouth. The current West professes the liturgy of spiritual love, but, in years past, the younger West spoke in a language poetic in melody, yet Marxist in terminology, a habit that made his facial hair seem all the more radical.  

The tight contours of Glaude’s beard, on the other hand, match the clean, controlled lines of his dark gray suit. At Morehouse he had what he calls a “conversion experience” reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and he grew the goatee to mirror Malcolm’s after he left the Nation of Islam. The move coincided with a shift in Malcolm’s thought from calling for independence from white culture to promoting black power and self-determination. For Glaude, reading through the experience of Malcolm X’s life inspired not only an intellectual realization, but a personal one: “This is why my dad, on so many levels, is so damn angry.” Like West’s, the facial hair that Glaude wears is an homage to a mentor, but with intellectual history as with much else in Glaude’s life, comes deep, often dark emotional and personal resonance.

 

While their language differs, what remains the same between West and Glaude is their ability to captivate an audience, particularly students. Kijan Maxam first met Glaude as an undergraduate at Bowdoin College, where Glaude taught after earning his Ph.D. Maxam is a now Ph.D. candidate in the Religion, Ethics and Politics program at Princeton. “We pop up wherever he is,” she jokes, mentioning other past classmates who had done the same. Maxam categorizes Glaude as a “teacher-preacher.” Teacher first because of his overwhelming commitment to his students. Preacher because the “urgency with which he’s teaching takes on a sermonic feel, it’s infectious.”

Glaude’s lectures today retain the preacher-like quality. Sentences, more often than not Baldwin quotes, start strong before trailing off into a tense whisper of a finale. The power placed on the last phrase is in the straining of the voice, not the volume. “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime…” As he works strings of sentences together, he builds into a crescendo. Freeing himself from behind the podium, he walks about the front of the amphitheater lecture hall, his open palms spreading out in front of him for emphasis and coming together to designate unity.

Maxam remembers that during her time at Bowdoin, Glaude’s undergraduate students shared a recurring joke: they would leave each class asking one another what had just happened. Each lecture’s rhythm would draw them in, but the words Glaude sculpted into abstract concepts often made little sense. “We always knew there was something profound underneath,” she says, “but we kept asking ‘How do we decode it?’”

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(Google Images, re-use permitted)

Kevin Wolfe recalls that the first lecture of each class felt like he was being thrown straight into a fire. Wolfe received his Ph.D. from Princeton in last June under Glaude’s supervision. He, too, followed Glaude from Bowdoin. After working with him for 19 years, he describes him as a big brother. After the first day, Wolfe recalls spending the rest of the semester trying to claw his way out of the flames and pin down what exactly Glaude was talking about.

Today, the verbiage has evolved, according to Maxam, who has been a preceptor for Glaude. He builds his talks around one or two concepts and then fills them in with examples to which he continually refers as he breaks down abstract ideas and gives students the tools to understand them. Maxam said she sees students, instead of wondering what it all means, leaving lectures asking  “How does it apply to me?”

Both former students see the change as emblematic of Glaude’s commitment to growth. “Eddie genuinely cares about figuring out how best to reach you,” Wolfe says, commenting on the vast array of student perspectives in each classroom. “He’d be a tinkerer and an experimenter with his pedagogy.”

Wolfe’s use Deweyian language is not a coincidence. Both he and Maxam speak in an idiom that is both inflected by pragmatism and reflective of Wolfe’s assertion that Glaude “does not want sycophants.” Wolfe describes in Glaude a “hunger,” which offers an interestingly different take on the language of anger, but still maintains the pragmatic undertones. When she talks about her own research, Maxam asserts the ethical importance of her academic work’s grounding in people’s actual lives. The importance of gaining knowledge from lived experience is at the forefront of her ethnographic study of social and political change in Jamaica.

 

In all of his work, Glaude says, “the goal is to create the space for people to be larger. When you walk into a room, you don’t want the oxygen levels to go down. You want people to get bigger, more expansive.” It’s true whether he is in the classroom or in the national spotlight. He is a contributor to Huffington Post and Time, regularly appears on nationally televised news programs like CNN, and most importantly engages and writes about activist communities all across the country.

The Black Lives Matter movement and the state of race relations in America at the end of President Obama’s second term set the stage for his newest book, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. It is a call to action in response to what Glaude calls “the value gap”, an institutionalized belief that white people are valued more than others. In a recent interview, he told Salon, “My hope is that we can begin to give voice to a new kind of politics by being bolder. Democracy in black has always been about efforts and actions on the part of black people and others to make real the idea that this country is of the people, for the people and by the people. At the heart of it, it’s trying to expand the very notion of ‘the people.’”

Constantly referring back to the broader black community is emblematic of the humility with which Glaude tries to carry himself.  This, he says, comes from his mother. Reminding himself of home is a way he can always recalibrate and remember her words, which he parses into four basic thoughts: “You want to confirm the dignity of every human being; you want to understand that you are a fallen, finite creature, that you’re not perfect; you want to walk in a kind of humility that’s not self-deprecation, but a kind of humility that allows other people to be who they are and be who they’ve been called to be; and, finally, you want to do some good. You want to leave some good behind in the time that you’re here.”

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‘Parsing’ is Glaude’s way of understanding, and using his past. It’s hard to imagine a young Eddie Jr. engaging his parents on the finer points of pragmatism. The proverbial wisdom that Glaude lives by – his mother’s morality, his grandma’s word on rage, and his father’s preparatory armor – may be the words of his elders, but the words are his own re-articulation. Baldwin gave him the language to articulate his experience, and  Glaude infused the language with meaning by understanding it through his own experience.

“The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism,” Ralph Ellison once wrote in Living With Music. The blues crops up again and again in Glaude’s work and in his life. He says he can tell his life’s story through music. His first heartbreak came to the soundtrack of Atlantic Star and Saturday mornings were filled with B.B. King, Albert Collins, and Betty James. His father would come home after long days of work and immediately fill the house with sound. Glaude relates music to the lowest of lows and the highest joys. The blues are a refuge from the nasty realities of life and rest on an ethos of self-creation within a society that dictates the terms of individuality.

A lecture on African American music modeled by one he learned from Cornel West explains the role of the blues. “What we’re trying to figure out,” Glaude reminds the class, “is, over all our readings, in the midst of all the suffering, how joy is snatched from the ugly dimensions of life.” Moving from early 20th Century to today, he traces the way in which the sound of the music reflects changes in material circumstance. Work songs of sharecroppers, like “the corn holler” are born from a deep, guttural feeling of pain. The sound morphs with the great migration as jazz is born out of urbanization. With continued integration into northern society and articulation of the African American’s place within that society come big band, bee bop, show tunes, Motown, and more. The movement from the field to the ghetto is a “soundtrack with deep historical meaning.”

He works his way through the likes of Drake and Beyoncé, showing that even mass commercialization cannot remove the meaning of the sound of black America. “The social reality still animates the music,” he says playing “Animals” by Dr. Dre. The mood in the room shifts as Glaude goes from energetic dancing to somber reflection and “Blacker the Berry” comes over the speakers. His grimace materializes as Kendrick Lamar’s hoarse voice fills the room with the harsh weight of the rapper’s own experience, “You can vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me.” Glaude pairs Kendrick’s anger with the rapper’s own version of “all is not settled.” As “Alright” plays in the background, Glaude walks to the center of the room to address the crowd. “This is your generation. The sound continues.”

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