Eddie Glaude Jr. responds with Hope in “An Incredibly Dark and Challenging Time”

By Donald Gilpin | Photos courtesy of Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite

The day I interviewed him for this article, September 23, was not a good day for Eddie S. Glaude Jr., the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor and chair of Princeton University’s Department of African American Studies. It was the day that the verdict was delivered on the shooting of Breonna Taylor by three police officers in Louisville, Kentucky. None of the three was charged in Taylor’s death, though one officer was charged with wanton endangerment.

Glaude interrupted the call at one point to listen to the breaking news report on TV. When he returned to the phone, his voice was subdued. “I wasn’t expecting much,” he said, “but it’s still enraging. It never stops. It seems as if something happens every day.”

With numerous publications on religion, philosophy, and African American studies, including his most recent book Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, Glaude is very much a scholar engulfed in the world of academics, but at the same time he is the most public of intellectuals, much in demand as a Time magazine columnist and a regular commentator on radio and television news programs such as Democracy Now!, Morning Joe, and The 11th Hour.

The mix of deep engagement with current events as well as scholarship pervades Glaude’s classroom, as it pervades his life and his work. He described the class, African American Studies and the Philosophy of Race, that he is team teaching, remotely this term, with his colleague Imani Perry.

“Teaching today,” he said, “before I could say anything I had to reference the backdrop of the Breonna Taylor decision about to be rendered. And you could see it on the students’ faces: ‘Here we go again. It just won’t stop.’”

He continued, “These students have come of age amid continuing catastrophe, whether the catastrophe of climate change or the Great Recession, school murders or police killings, or global pandemic and economic depression. These are the young folk who have come of age in a moment that suggests that the country is broken.

“And you can see them in my classes reaching for something, reaching for an account, trying to make sense of it all. It gives the classroom — even virtually — a sense of urgency. And many of them are taking the risk, even in the midst of a global pandemic, to continue to protest for a better America. Your shoulders have to be broad to carry the weight of our future.”

Precept for “Introduction to the Study of African American Cultural Practices,” led by Eddie Glaude Jr.

From Rural Mississippi to the National Forum

Glaude grew up in a working-class home in Moss Point, Mississippi. His father was a postman, and his mother was a custodian, then supervisor of a custodial team at a shipyard. “There really were no books in the house,” he said, but he found books at school, in the library, and elsewhere, and became a reader.

“I’ve been interested in politics for as long as I can remember,” he noted. As part of a YMCA program that invited high school students from across Mississippi to the capital to help run the state government for two or three days, Glaude was chosen as the first Black youth governor of the state.

“That was fun,” he said. “And I was a special guest of the Mississippi Democratic Party to the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in 1984. I had a front row seat to hear Jesse Jackson’s speech and Mario Cuomo’s ‘Tale of Two Cities’ speech. I witnessed the contention between Jackson’s delegates and the old civil rights establishment that had supported Walter Mondale.”

Already captivated by politics, which later led him into African American studies, Glaude graduated from high school at age 16 and made his way to Morehouse College in Atlanta. “I was trying to find my way,” he said. “I read, but I didn’t read in a disciplined way. It was at Morehouse that my political sensibility was transformed. It became a much more focused interest in the circumstances of Black people, not just politics in general. I had originally thought I was going to run for office and become a politician.”

A Sense of Self

Glaude’s interest in politics has never waned since his days in high school and college in the 1980s, but at Morehouse that interest both intensified and took an academic turn.

“When I got to Morehouse, I was in some ways radicalized,” he said. “I found a political language from my dad’s rage. I found a language for my own anger that I didn’t know I had. It’s in that environment, being at an all-male HBCU [historically Black college and university] that I really came to a sense of myself as an African American man.”

He continued, “It was at Morehouse that I decided that formal politics was corrupt and offered little in terms of really transforming the circumstances of the most vulnerable among us.”

It was also at Morehouse that Glaude met Aaron Parker, a professor of philosophy and religion and a Baptist minister.

“He invested in me,” Glaude said. “He asked me what I was going to do with my life. I wasn’t sure. I was a reader, and I knew I wanted to do something like what Dr. Parker did. I didn’t know what it would entail, but I knew I loved to read. I loved disappearing in books. I didn’t know what I wanted to do after I graduated, but I made a decision where I stumbled into graduate school.”

Hearing from friends about a program that aligned with his politics and interests, Glaude enrolled in a graduate program in African American studies at Temple University. It was at Temple that the next chapter of the journey that eventually brought him to Princeton took place, and “at the heart of this story of my connection to Princeton is Cornel West,” Glaude noted.

The Path to Princeton

As a graduate student at Temple in the early 1990s, Glaude was invited to deliver a paper on Afrocentrism at a major conference at the University of Wisconsin, which West also attended. West, renowned public intellectual and now a Princeton University professor emeritus, was teaching a seminar at the time on the African American intellectual tradition, the first graduate seminar in African American studies ever offered at Princeton.

Glaude eagerly accepted West’s invitation to attend the seminar and eventually his subsequent invitation to apply for admission to Princeton as a graduate student in religion. Not entirely happy with the narrow focus of the Temple African American studies program, Glaude spent a summer in England studying with Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy, “stalwart figures of the British Black intellectual movement,” then transferred to Princeton the following year.

“I went over there for the summer and my mind was blown away,” he recalled, “and then I came back to Temple and left Temple within a year.”

Glaude, who described himself as “always an avid reader,” claimed that his undergraduate experience at Morehouse “just opened me up, but it wasn’t really until graduate school at Princeton in 1991-92 that everything clicked. But I didn’t take the traditional route.”

After earning his doctorate in religion from Princeton, with a year at Harvard University working in an exchange scholars program with West, who had moved to Harvard, Glaude began his teaching career at Bowdoin College, where he taught for seven years. In 2002, both Glaude and West returned to Princeton to join, in West’s case re-join, the Princeton faculty.

Glaude is proud of his accomplishments at Princeton over the past almost 19 years, particularly in the building of the Department of African American Studies, which he chairs. “It was a long journey, but it’s something that I’m immensely proud of,” he said. “Since I arrived at Princeton, I think I’ve played an important role in building the department. Before I arrived no student at Princeton had ever graduated with a degree in African American studies, and now we’ve graduated three classes of students. It’s a wonderful thing.”

He described the tenure of Shirley Tilghman, Princeton University’s first woman president (2001-2013) and only the second woman president of an Ivy League university, as crucial to the transformation of Princeton away from its racist past. “It was like tectonic plates shifting, the way she came in and what she decided to do,” he said.

He continued, “That doesn’t mean that Princeton has suddenly become a Shangri-La when it comes to matters of diversity and the like, but we’ve made a difference, I think, in how the institution works.”

“Princeton Has to Do Better”

Whether Princeton University is making progress rapidly enough to shake off its reputation as a traditional Southern institution, however, is still in question, says Glaude. “The reputation of Princeton as the Ivy of the South is well earned,” he noted. “It’s a place that carries the burden of the history of its past. It’s been kind of late in the way in which it’s approached that reputation.”

Glaude praised recent efforts by Princeton University to overcome its racist past and to combat inequalities that remain, but he said that the University’s commitment “waxes and wanes — one period when it’s horrible, another period when there’s an uptick, and then another period when it’s horrible again. We’ve got to be consistent in what we do.”

He continued, “Princeton has to do better. I think it knows it has to do better with regard to the diversity of its faculty. It has committed itself to diversifying its student body at the undergraduate and graduate levels, so it has a lot of work to do in this regard.”

Glaude, however, had little patience with the U.S. Department of Education’s announcement in September that it was investigating Princeton University for admitting that racism remains embedded in the University and in society at large. “It’s silly,” he said. “It’s frivolous. It’s more than likely a reaction to our own explicit attempt to deal with systemic racism at Princeton.” Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber had earlier in the month reported on the University’s progress in pursuing several initiatives to combat racism and inequality on campus.

“There are those who want to insist on American innocence at every turn,” said Glaude, “and they police efforts to encounter our past honestly and genuinely by declaring it as anti-America propaganda and the like. And if they hold power, they will bring the full brunt of state power to maintain their hold on the lie. And so it’s just the latest example of a minority of people who want to insist that America remains permanently where white reigns. So it’s a frivolous act by small-minded, small-hearted people.”

Among the University’s recent actions to combat racism, Glaude applauded the decision last June to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its School of Public Affairs and from a residential college. “I think it’s a wonderful first step, but we have to avoid the temptation of self-congratulation,” he said.

Pointing out that it took the University a long time, and many generations of students calling for the removal of Wilson’s name, to finally taking action, Glaude commented on the University’s past identification with Wilson and Eisgruber’s comment that “this is not who we aspire to be.” Glaude noted, “There’s no doubt that Woodrow Wilson is critical to Princeton’s self-understanding. The University wouldn’t be what it is if it wasn’t for what he did for the school. At the same time, the Princeton of Woodrow Wilson is not the Princeton that makes me possible. There’s a reason why Paul Robeson went to Rutgers as opposed to Princeton.”

He continued, “The Princeton that we are and the Princeton that we aspire to be are not consistent with the values that Wilson represented, and it makes sense that what and who we choose to celebrate reflects not only who we are, but who we aspire to be. And so I’m delighted by the decision, and I think that decision goes hand in hand with the idea that we have to continue to work hard to make this University a place that is available to everyone and a place that looks like and reflects not only the country we live in, but the country we aspire to live in.”

“Pushing the Boulder Up the Hill Again” with James Baldwin

Glaude’s Begin Again, published earlier this year by Penguin Random House, was described by Imani Perry as “precisely the witness we need for our treacherous times.” Cornel West called it “undoubtedly the best treatment we have of Baldwin’s genius and relevance.”

The book and its genesis are as much about Glaude and the trajectory of his intellectual life as they are about James Baldwin.

“I encountered Baldwin seriously in graduate school at Princeton,” said Glaude, “and he has been since then a critical resource for how I think about matters of race and democracy.”

Glaude talked about troubled current events and how the state of the nation in the present had sent him back to learn from the writing and thinking of Baldwin.

“So here we are in this moment when the country has in some ways doubled down on its ugliness. We spent eight years with a Black family in the White House, and we saw the tensions and debates. And then the country decided to elect Donald Trump.”

He went on, “And I found myself grappling with my own despair and disillusionment, thinking to myself, white America has done it again. It has turned its back on the possibility of real significant change, and in some ways, it has doubled down on its ugliness. And so I reached for Baldwin because he lived through a moment of betrayal. He saw the country turn its back on the promise of the civil rights movement, the Black freedom struggle. He knew what the election of Richard Nixon meant in 1968 and 1972. He knew what the election of Reagan suggested in 1980. So I turned to Baldwin to write with him, to draw on his resources, how he picked up the pieces and found energy to push the rock up the hill again, because I needed those resources for me to pick up the pieces and to push the boulder up the hill as well.”

The Pandemic and Hope for the Future

Noting that the coronavirus pandemic has “made vulnerability a generalized state” and at the same time “revealed the deep fissures in American society,” Glaude emphasized the critical importance of the present moment.

“Because COVID-19 has really arrested the way we go about our lives, it has created the conditions for a moment of pause when we can really engage in reflection and self-assessment, though it seems as if some parts of the country want to refuse that,” he said.

He pointed out the nation’s inequalities revealed in the deaths of people of color at two and a half times the number of deaths of whites. “The disease is indiscriminate, but it takes advantage of and metastasizes in the cracks and fissures of American society,” he added.

Glaude reflected on the current state of the country amid racial turmoil, the pandemic, and economic distress in many quarters. “We are in the midst of a reckoning of sorts where we’re going to have to decide once and for all what kind of country we’re going to be. We can’t put this genie back in the bottle again.”

Despite the discouraging news from Louisville and the precarious state of the nation, “hope” is the word Glaude used most frequently in his reflections on the current situation, though he has described his perspective in a quote from W.E.B. Du Bois as “not hopeless, but a bit unhopeful.”

“And so,” he concluded, “we have to finally decide whether we’re going to be a genuine multiracial democracy, and my hope is that we will risk everything in this moment because what has been revealed is that a particular political and economic ideology is bankrupt. It has jeopardized the planet and thrown workers into an ongoing state of insecurity and precariousness. It has produced this wealth design that’s not sustainable and it has exploited our fears and anger and grievance in such a way that we can’t even imagine a sense of the common good.”

Returning to reference the wisdom of Baldwin, Glaude went on in describing his hopeful vision of a future that’s brighter than the past, with the current crises inspiring positive change. “My hope is that this moment will occasion a different way for imagining the country,” he said. “I know we’ve been here before in the past and we’ve failed miserably, but, as James Baldwin would say, human beings are both disasters and miracles all at once, and we have to protect ourselves from the disasters that we’ve become.

“Whenever we show up, if we show up, there is a chance for a miracle. So when it comes to hope I echo Baldwin. Hope is invented every day, so my faith is that we might show up, risk everything, and perhaps a miracle will evidence itself and we can get on the road of giving birth to a new America.”

As far as Glaude’s own life and career as a teacher, writer, and public intellectual are concerned, he is eager to meet the ongoing challenges at Princeton and beyond. “I’m a student of Cornel West,” he said, “and what that means for me is that we’re always looking for opportunities to think carefully in public with others. That’s the way in which I imagine my public intellectual work.”

Glaude lives in Lawrenceville with his wife, a professor of sociology and African American studies at The College of New Jersey. Their son, a recent graduate of Brown University, is interning with the San Francisco public defender’s office and looking forward to going to law school.

“Looking ahead,” said Glaude, “I’ve got some more books in me. I’m sure about that. I see a novel or a play at some point. There’s no limit to how I imagine myself as an intellectual, as a person who is excited and in love with ideas and with the life of the mind. The future is rich in that regard.”

Optimistic, “but a bit unhopeful,” he added, “In terms of the broader public, whatever I’m doing or writing, it’s always going to be shaped by this incredibly dark and challenging time we find ourselves in. Nothing is going to be resolved anytime soon. So we have to buckle up and prepare to fight with all we have for a more just world.”